With the Democratic party running the Legislative Branch, the public financing of elections ought to be implemented immediately. If the government is truly serious about campaign finance reform, public financing is truly the only policy solution - everything else is merely a fig leaf meant to make politicians look courageous all the while allowing them to continue participating in the current regime of legalized bribery.
But even if one wants to take a more cynical view of campaign finance reform, a view that looks more to the political advantage that could be derived from implementing the public financing of elections rather than the benefits our system of democratic participation in government would accrue from curtailing the monopoly of power Big Business lobbyists hold on Capitol Hill, a strong case can be made for moving ahead with this policy. And Zachary Roth has written a fantastic article for Washington Monthly (the liberal magazine he edits) which makes a self-described Machiavellian case for public financing.
Roth notes that exit polls from last November's elections found that more voters named corruption as an extremely important issue than any other, including Iraq. In his article, he gets down to eloquently stating the obvious truth of the matter: "Democratic leaders have announced that, in their first 100 hours in office, they’ll introduce an ethics- and lobbying-reform package that would ban lobbyist-financed gifts, meals, and travel; mandate disclosure of all member contacts with lobbyists; and address the problem of earmarks by requiring that the sponsors of funding for home-state pet projects be identified, among other steps.
These measures are a clear improvement on the toothless approach embraced by congressional Republicans in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal last year. But few seriously believe that they get to the heart of Washington’s influence problem. That problem will exist as long as elected officials must raise large amounts of money to run for office from the organized economic interests they’re supposed to be regulating. That’s why any serious effort to clean up Washington must break the connection between money and elections. The only way to do that is to provide candidates for office with public revenue to run their campaigns."
He also runs down a laundry list of reasons why moving toward a system of public financing would create a strong advantage for Democrats against Republicans. First, he documents how the current private system favors Republicans both ideologically and financially, as well as preventing Democrats from taking principled stands due to the constant need to make sure they are not biting the hand that feeds them. As Roth notes: "Currently, Democrats—especially the more progressive ones—must ask for votes by claiming they’ll stand up for working people, while at the same time, though more subtly, keeping one eye on the interests of their corporate benefactors."
Also, establishing a public system of financing would allow Democrats to claim a higher moral ground against the GOP, who can reasonably be expected to reject such a meaningful reform due to the fact that the current system provides them with a fundraising advantage (and, to a lesser degree, their aversion to non-military government spending).
Roth explains how the current system works in such a way as to make clear that it must be replaced with public financing: "[The current lobbying] machine works as follows: First, Republican leaders pressure major K-Street lobbying shops to hire loyal GOP lieutenants—usually former congressional aides—in place of the pragmatic corporate executives who used to be in charge. That allows the party to subsume K Street’s vast resources—its lawyers, lobbyists, PR professionals, and, most important, its money—into the Republican political operation. Through their allies on K Street, GOP leaders can ensure that lobbying firms give the lion’s share of their donations to Republicans—helping to perpetuate the party’s political dominance. The numbers speak for themselves. In 1993, when Democrats controlled Congress and the White House, 19 key industries—including accounting, pharmaceuticals, and defense—gave roughly evenly between the parties. By 2003, they gave twice as much to Republicans as to Democrats."
Finally, Roth explains how implementing public financing would help Democrats pass their agenda. He points out that in recent years, the party has "at times failed to stay united on major economic votes like the bankruptcy bill of 2005, in part because some members have caved to their corporate backers." On the other hand, "If Democrats hope to fix the Medicare drug plan or repeal some of the Bush tax cuts, they’ll need to reduce these defections. Ending the link between corporate money and elections will make it easier for Democrats to side with their constituents, not their contributors. And creating a record of legislative accomplishment is perhaps the most effective way for Democrats to boost their political prospects."
Roth is not politically naive enough to think that this type of extensive reform can be passed in the next two years. Rather, he envisions a strategy of Democrats using their newly-found legislative power to lay the ideological and political groundwork necessary to implement the policy in 2008. He also recognizes the fact that the public would probably be reluctant to foot the bill for such an expensive new taxpayer subsidy, regardless of the clear benefit of democratic empowerment it would provide every citizen with. So he suggests levying a tax on lobbyists, PACs, political consultants, and government contractors to fund the program. Needless to say, every lobbyist outfit in Washington would join forces to block this, and it's hard to underestimate the combined clout K Street holds right now over Congress.
For a case study in the disasterous results pay-for-play politics currently represents, check out this report from Common Cause on how the cable industry leveraged $100 million in campaign donations to get Congress to pass favorable legislation.
Update: Apparently, Dick Durban (D-IL) - who just so happens to be the second most powerful man in the Senate - is paying heed and is now on the record as not only favoring public financing but also working on new legislation to accomplish just that. And it is being reported that this legislation would likely be based on public campaign finance laws in Arizona and Maine.
(Crossposted at Troubled Times