I'm talking about the special interest money-drenched campaign finance system, which seems to act like a corruption-magnet, while shutting people and good candidates out.
Today's Washington Post story points out that this election is characterized by an unusually large number of races with corruption or personal scandals - perhaps as many as 15 races, according to the story. Fifteen is the Democrats magic number. If you're a Republican, I guess you could say that at least the corruption story has been localized. Isn't that what Tom Reynolds - who running in one of those 15 races impacted by scandal - wanted? Races to be determined not by the news of a corrupt Washington, but 435 individualized elections?
For more than a year, Democrats have tried to gain political advantage from what they called "a culture of corruption" in Republican-controlled Washington. Republican campaign officials insist the theme has not caught on with the public, but even they concede that many individual races have been hit hard.
Though it is clear that the war in Iraq is the dominant nationalized issue of the election, I do think there's a larger theme at work here that invokes the corruption at a national level: this Republican Congress is not listening to the people - they are out of touch, too cozy in Washington, and are stuck defending the status quo mess of their own making. So far, the Democrats have succeeded campaigning on change - change the course in Iraq and change politics-as-usual in Washington.
Should the Congress change hands in January, the Democratic leadership has promised to pass ethics and lobbying reform in the very first 100 hours of running the House to break the nexus of lobbying and lawmaking, in their words. The policy they're suggesting at this point -- Pelosi has pointed to a mixture of lobbying and ethics reforms -- are fine on the surface but don't go to the root of the problem: the pay-to-play, privately-financed campaign finance system that privileges those with money over those with ideas.
If they really want to shake things up, and do something that will capture the public's attention, they ought to embrace the first platform item on the Voters First Pledge - public financing of congressional elections.
(Note: Tomorrow I'm going to post a Part 2 that includes a list of all those who are likely to be in the next Congress who have signed the pledge, as well as those who have signed but are in uncertain elections.)
Voters are sick of the non-stop advertising and the scandals that come from privately-financed campaigns that are ripe for real and perceived conflicts of interest. Candidates are sick of raising money. Many downright hate it. Even some donors are sick of the rising cost of donating - one told me yesterday he's waiting for Harold Ford Jr. to call because he read the news that Bob Corker triggered the so-called Millionaire's Amendment, which frees up Ford Jr. to raise contributions above the legal limit of $2,100.
Here's a primer on how Clean Elections-style public financing works. Candidates agree to a spending limit and agree to take little or no private contributions beyond the start-up costs. They raise a large number of small contributions from people they seek to represent to qualify for a set amount of public money. Qualifying standards would have to be significantly high to ensure integrity, but not so high to shut out legitimate candidates.
If a participating candidate is outspent by someone not participating in the system, or independent expenditures, they receive "fair fight" funds to keep pace (generally two or three times the original campaign limit). They don't spend time dialing for dollars. Rather they spend their time courting voters. Governor Janet Napolitano (D-AZ) used the system in Arizona in 2002 to win, and is using it again this year. Three-quarters of the Maine legislature was elected under the law there. At the federal level, provisions for airtime would have to be included to make this work.
Think about how a Medicare reform bill would have turned out differently if lawmakers (of both parties) were elected under such a system. Do you think we'd be further along the path of energy independence and a real alternative energy plan if lawmakers didn't depend on oil and gas contributions? How about real oversight into the corporate profiting from contracts in Iraq? Or about how much time this would free up from the day-in-day-out fundraising treadmill our elected officials are on -- what else could they be working on?
There's no doubt: if the Democrats were to seriously tackle this issue, there would be a major pushback from K Street. Campaign contributions are the stock-in-trade for too many in Washington. But there's no better time for the House Democrats to push Clean Elections. We'll have to be there to back up any courageous elected officials who pursue it. Tomorrow, in Part 2, I'll post who's already made the pledge.
Cross-posted at MyDD.com