ISAW IT COMING.

I've always said campaign finance reform was a misnomer. And probably unconstitutional.

Of course, the Supreme Court disagrees with me. In a landmark case in the 1970s called Buckley vs. Valeo, the court upheld federal limits on campaign contributions, but struck down provisions limiting how much the campaign itself could spend. The court also refused to limit the amount a candidate could contribute to his own campaign.

Chief Justice Warren Burger got it right in his dissent. He lamented the distinction his fellow justices made between how much a campaign could spend and how much a person could contribute to a campaign. Burger wrote, "Contributions and expenditures are two sides of the same First Amendment coin."

Surveying the system, he continued: "All candidates can now spend freely; affluent candidates, after today, can spend their own money without limit; yet contributions for the ordinary candidate are severely restricted . . . I cannot believe that Congress would have enacted a statutory scheme containing such incongruous and inequitable provisions."

That sounds a lot like what's happening today in Philadelphia's mayoral race. A man almost universally perceived as underwhelming by the closest observers is leading a pack of qualified candidates for the Democratic nomination. Why? Because campaign finance reform has strangled his opponents.

Tom Knox is the only donor able to contribute millions to a campaign - his own. The city's campaign contribution limits, like those Justice Burger rejected in 1976, protect his right to spend as much as he wants to influence the election. I have no problem with his spending what he can. But the rules fail to offer the same protection to ordinary citizens with the same intention.

As a result, nobody has been able to raise enough money to counter the image Knox has created for himself in billboards and on the air. And the latest polls put him clearly atop the race with just over three weeks until Election Day.

Yeah, I told you so.

No doubt the city is right to emerge from the current administration with the goal of ending nepotism and pay-to-play politics. And I'm sure those who supported the current regulations did so with the best intentions.

But campaign finance reform is like a new Internal Revenue Service code: There's always a loophole.

We're never going to be able to really control how people contribute to a campaign. So why stop a potential donor from spending what he wants?

Example: The limits restrict the money donors can give to a candidate, but they still do little to curb non-monetary contributions like legal work or Election Day "consulting." Is one form of contribution really more harmful than the other? It seems both could be parlayed into a favor later.

MY SOLUTION: Ditch restrictions in favor of disclosure. Anybody should be able to spend anything they raise anywhere, as long as we know about it right away.

And that's the idea Justice Burger explored when he wondered why the court determined that disclosure requirements were insufficient to keep tabs on what money was flowing where. Isn't that essentially what we're seeking - to be able to follow the movement of money through the campaign, and make decisions accordingly?

Think about it: If you don't like the donors a candidate has lined up, vote against that candidate. Suspect a particular contribution was made with expectations of favoritism? Pull another lever.

Are you unwilling to vote for someone willing to spend more than $5 million of his own money to buy back your city? Then ask somebody else to remove that For Sale sign from City Hall.

There's still time on the clock, but right now, this campaign is poised to be the cycle where the do-gooders got the campaign rules they wanted - and the candidate they didn't. *

Listen to Michael Smerconish weekdays 5:30-9 a.m. on the Big Talker, 1210/AM. Read him Sundays in the Inquirer. Contact him via the Web at www.mastalk.com.