Don’t give up on campaign reform

Hillary Clinton, Democratic presidential hopeful, speaks during a campaign appearance at Rainier Beach High School in Seattle, March 22, 2016. (David Ryder/The New York Times)

A year ago, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, boosted by supportive Super PACs, held substantial leads in the presidential campaign fundraising race. And citing money’s central role in modern politics, some pundits deemed those resources as decisive assets that would produce a second Clinton-vs.-Bush general election this November.

Today, however, though Mrs. Clinton remains the Democratic front-runner, she has lost eight of the last nine primaries and caucuses to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who hasn’t even sanctioned a Super PAC to back him.

And Mr. Bush withdrew from the race after dismal outcomes in the first three GOP contests — the final one a fourth-place finish in the Feb. 20 South Carolina primary.

But that doesn’t mean campaign funding isn’t exerting excessive influence on our electoral process.

As the Campaign Finance Institute reported this week, the 2016 White House candidates and outside groups pushing their presidential cases have already surpassed the $1 billion fundraising mark collectively, already setting another record in the escalating arms race that is 21st century U.S. political spending.

Yes, Sen. Sanders is giving Mrs. Clinton a good run for her money despite not having nearly as much campaign money as she does.

Yet Sen. Sanders has raised an impressive sum of his own — mostly from small donors. As he pointed out last week after winning the Wisconsin primary, his average contribution is $27.

Meanwhile, GOP front-runner Donald Trump doesn’t have to rely on big money from Super PACs backed by billionaires.

That’s because he’s a billionaire himself.

Still, running for elective office (and not just the presidency) requires spending large, and as of now still-rising, sums. So whether the dollars come from others or yourself, that economic equation inevitably shrinks the pool of potential candidates.

Assorted politicians, including President Barack Obama, have repeatedly decried this reality, which imposes high costs in money, time and credibility.

Yet in 2008 Mr. Obama, then a U.S. senator, became the first presidential candidate to opt out of the public financing of presidential campaigns, which was instituted starting with the 1976 election as a response to the Watergate scandal that forced President Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation. Sen. Obama raised a then-record amount from private contributions en route to winning the White House.

Before and since that turning point in campaign funding, Congress has tried to craft reasonable campaign-finance regulations.

But over the last four decades, the Supreme Court, in a series of decisions based on free speech grounds, has overruled those attempted reforms.

Along the way, congressional efforts also have produced unintended consequences — for instance, those Super PACs that leave voters wondering whether candidates approved, or did not approve, those independent voices’ messages.

You need not be a politician seeking donations to know that American candidates are having to spend too much money — and time raising it — to seek elective office.

Former Sen. Ernest Hollings, in columns on our Commentary page, has repeatedly — and persuasively — deplored that trend, which fuels hyperpartisanship and gridlock in the halls of power.

Whoever wins this year’s presidential and congressional races should try again to craft effective — and constitutional — campaign finance reform.

Otherwise, the political spending records will keep falling — and donors will keep wielding undue influence on our self-governing process.