Cross-posted at MyDD.com
Matt Stoller at MyDD.com (here and here) and Kos have written posts recently about the ethics and lobbying reforms in Congress, and the need to reassess the whole regulatory scheme of campaign reform. They’ve been joined by lots of other commentary, like former Secretary of Labor Bob Reich on Marketplace this morning and David Sirota (here and just about everywhere), arguing that Congress has left the major part of the money in politics problem untouched – the private financing of public elections.
Matt’s argument, in a nutshell is this: process reforms that rely on regulation and policing bad behavior always fail to live up to their billing, and what we need to do instead is shift the paradigm to public financing:
Let's be honest - quasi-corrupt practices such as secret earmarks are not the result just of bad people in politics, they are the result of structural factors that encourage the legalized bribery of our governing class. If you restrict secret earmarks without changing any other incentives, you'll simply push the quasi-corruption into another legal vehicle designed to bilk the public and hide the costs.
Kos extends the criticism of the ethics and lobbying reforms to other types of campaign reforms, like the proposed and rejected FEC regulations on bloggers political activities.
Here's the problem, and I saw this up front and personal during the FEC fight with the "reformer" groups -- they've lost sight of the purpose of [campaign finance reform].
In their minds, money is inherently evil. Their efforts are predicated on the impossible -- getting money out of politics. But as Stoller notes, that just ain't gonna happen, Buckley or not. All speech costs money of some sort these days. Even getting yourself to a street protest costs money (gas or transit).
So is the problem really money?
I would argue that the problem is when money is used to drown out competing voices. It was a key argument we bloggers used in defending ourselves against the "reformers" -- that while money could drown out other voices in radio or television, the inherent nature of the web meant there was no scarcity.
Still, he withholds judgment on public financing, despite its impact in dealing with the very problem he identifies.
These are not an academic question for me, or for progressives. I work on this issue day in, day out for Public Campaign and Public Campaign Action Fund, the leading national group on public financing. I have worked on Clean Elections for a dozen years, dating back to when I ran the Maine ballot question campaign to pass the first full public financing law in the country. Six additional states (including Arizona and Connecticut for all state offices) and two cities have followed suit. We are working in coalition with many of the organizations identified in the posts by Matt and Markos, and count them as strong allies in the public financing fight.
And while I cannot speak for the other groups, I don’t think any – though I may be wrong – would ever argue that the ethics and lobbying reforms on the table now in Washington will drain the money swamp on their own. They all, to a varying degree, put resources or are on record calling for comprehensive public financing. Credit where credit is due.
The truth is that the ethics and lobbying rules were porous and were made more so under the GOP control. They deserved some tightening. The reforms in the House last week and the Senate now, by and large, are a good step forward. For example, it’s a good idea to put more time and distance between public service and private gain by kicking the revolving door to two years from one (though, it probably should be three years or longer). But do I think these policies tackle the central problems? Not at all. Do I think they’ll actually hurt traction toward public financing? No, but that’s because progressives, reformers, bloggers, and others aren’t letting the Democrats get off easy by allowing them to claim reform is now finished. This is a common ground that neither Matt nor Kos acknowledge.
I think the play for bloggers and progressives is to build out from this common ground and to push for further systemic and structural changes.
Dozens of new freshmen members of Congress are still barely learning their way around Capitol Hill. They all have been told they have to have a million dollars in the bank by the end of the year. It costs money to raise money, so they'll need to raise $1.25 million. If they have debt, they have to repay it in the first two quarters. Given this, it’s probably not much of an exaggeration to think that these new members found their way to the fundraising rooms at the DCCC before they found the bathrooms. Break it down: they’ll have to raise $25,000 a week, or more, starting January 1, each and every week, to meet the million dollar in the bank level.
When you think about that, when do they have time to do the jobs they were elected to do? How much of that $25,000 will they be turning to the netroots to fund? Multiply the million dollars times the 40 to 50 competitive races, and we can probably predict that precious little will come from small donations. The fact is that even though the number of small donations have grown, big money fundraising has also exploded. Small donations don’t occupy a much bigger slice of the pie relative to large donations. With campaign costs skyrocketing, politicians are even more dependent on the big money machine in Washington, fueled by lobbyists who raise money from their clients, then ever before.
I think that the way small donations can make the most difference is not through PACs or through funding candidates directly, but rather through leveraging public money in a Clean Elections system.
Matt and Markos are right about the future. We have to shift the paradigm. The next reform must be about more participation, more speech, more public service from elected officials, more opportunity, more voters, more candidates. Public financing is the only way to get there. For seven years, McCain-Feingold was the reform policy that occupied center stage in Washington. Now it’s time Clean Elections-style public financing filled that void.
Tweaking around the edges won't do it. We need an alternative, new system. Let the old rules whither away because we’ve created a new system with better incentives. It’s happening in Maine – more than five of every six lawmakers were elected in 2006 after having participated in the Clean Elections law. It’s happening in Arizona, where Governor Janet Napolitano and AG Terry Goddard of Arizona have also used their state’s law – and won – twice. And now Congress boasts it’s first member with first hand experience with Clean Elections, Harry Mitchell of Arizona, who beat J.D. Hayworth and was a participant in the public financing system as a state Senator.
Under a new system, candidates would agree to limit spending, take no or little private money, and would qualify for a set amount of public money for their campaigns. They’d receive limited matching funds to keep pace with privately financed or wealthy candidates or outside spending. That’s more speech in order to respond, not less speech for others. Candidates – and elected officials – would be freed from the money chase and could campaign or govern without regard to the time and influence pressures of fundraising. It’s not a panacea. But today’s system breeds citizen discontent, arrogance, inequality, and corruption.
This is moving ahead in a serious way in the coming weeks, but we’ll need help. Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (and possibly others) will introduce a Senate Clean Elections bill. Reps. Tierney and Grijalva (and possibly others) will do the same in the House. A broad coalition – including the reform groups that raised some ire – will be behind these bills.
This reform does shift the paradigm. It has made campaigns in several states more about voters and volunteers than about donors and their dollars. Color me biased, but it’s a natural fit for those who care deeply about engaging people in democracy, like many of those who post and visit blogs like this one.
We’re not on the sidelines. We’re in the game. But we'll need you to weigh in with us.