Warren E. Buffett's recent entry into the campaign-reform debate can only be a healthy sign. The legendary Omaha-based investor wants to end the huge "soft-money" donations that increasingly are corrupting American politics. Buffett notes that many corporate executives ante up hundreds of thousands of dollars in political gifts out of fear that their business rivals will get a competitive advantage in Washington if they "unilaterally disarm." The result, he laments, is "a political arms race" with pols demanding larger contributions to fund increasingly expensive campaigns.
The McCain-Feingold bill curbing unlimited "soft-money" gifts is coming up for a vote in the Senate, and few give it much hope of passage. But business doesn't have to wait for Congress to act. Corporate contributors could just say no. That's what Buffett has done in the face of frequent solicitations for soft money. But, as he points out, most executives are afraid to turn down powerful pols who could influence billions in government contracts or corporate tax breaks.
Indeed, while business execs say they want reform, they're rarely willing to speak up like Buffett. Venture capitalist Jerome Kohlberg Jr. is pushing for a comprehensive campaign-finance overhaul through his Campaign Reform Project. But few active CEOs have joined Buffett and Sara Lee Corp. Chief John H. Bryan on the CRP's Business Advisory Council. If the system is to change, executives are going to have to speak up--or write ever-larger checks.