'Reform' Needs Clean Elections

While Republicans and Democratic leaders propose to tinker with lobbying and ethics rules, Democratic Reps. David Obey (Wis.) and Barney Frank (Mass.) have taken the lead in offering legislation for public financing of campaigns for Congress. "You can talk all you want about nibbling at the margins about ethics and House rules and all the rest," said Obey, the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, "but unless we deal with the nexus between politics and money, damned little is actually going to change over time."

"He's absolutely right, of course," David Sirota wrote at workingforchange.com. "The way lobbyists and Big Money interests are able to corrupt our political process is by buying access with campaign contributions," he said. "...Address that problem and give politicians an alternate way to run for office that allows them to be independent of corporate campaign cash, and you've gone a long way towards giving ordinary Americans their government back."

An unnamed senior House Republican aide told Reuters, "This is exactly the wrong place to go ... What's wrong with people just choosing candidates to give money to?"

Obey noted that Americans don't want to pay for public financing of campaigns but they don't want lobbyists paying for campaigns. "What that leaves is campaigns financed through immaculate conception and I don't think that's a reliable financing basis for campaigns," Obey told Reuters.

Taxpayers must recognize that they end up with the tab for the billions of dollars of tax breaks that politically-connected industries don't pay. They're also stuck with bad public policies that lobbyists buy with the current "pay to play" system.

We propose that Clean Elections be financed with a tax on broadcast advertising. TV and radio stations, which do not pay for their use of public airwaves, are the main beneficiary of campaign spending. A tax of 10% on commercials would generate $5 billion. Those revenues could pay for public financing of congressional and presidential campaigns and also fund expansion of public broadcasting services.

Some powerful Democrats as well as Republicans feel threatened by "clean elections." Not only does public financing partially divorce political power from the ability to shake down Big Money interests for cash. It also gives potential challengers of modest means a chance to run for Congress. That's one of the reasons conservative Democratic leaders in Massachusetts refused to fund a Clean Elections initiative that voters approved in 1998. The Legislature eventually repealed the law in 2003.

But other states and localities are going ahead with Clean Elections. In December 2005, the Connecticut General Assembly and Gov. Jodi Rell (R) became the first legislature and governor to approve full public financing for their own races. The new law offers public financing to statewide and legislative candidates who agree to spending limits and prove their bona fides by collecting small contributions from constituents. The law also bans most lobbyist political contributions. The Connecticut reforms followed scandals that put former Connecticut Gov. John Rowland, two big-city mayors, and a state treasurer in jail.

Public Campaign (publiccampaign.org), which advocates Clean Elections, noted other developments in public financing:

• Last May, the Portland, Ore., City Council approved Voter Owned Elections, making it the first city to adopt full public financing for city elections. It already has drawn a more diverse range of candidates, but special interests seeking to maintain their influence in City Hall on Jan. 17 turned in signatures for a repeal initiative intended for the May 2006 ballot.

• Albuquerque, N.M., voters passed the Open and Ethical Elections Code in October 2005 with 69% approval. It provides public funding to qualifying candidates who agree not to accept contributions from individuals or special interests.

• Arizona and Maine have offered full public financing of statewide and legislative races, or Clean Elections, since the 2000 election cycle. Both states see strong participation by candidates -- 58% of the current Arizona House and 23% of the current Arizona Senate ran "Clean," as did all but one of Arizona's statewide elected officials. And 78% of Maine's legislature used public financing to run for office. Both states have seen a more diverse group of legislators and officials elected.

• North Carolina, New Mexico, Vermont and New Jersey have Clean Elections systems for some races.

A Clean Elections bill is moving through the California Assembly. If that bogs down, the California Nurses Association, which helped to defeat Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's right-wing special election campaign last year, on Jan. 23 unveiled a broad reform initiative that not only includes public financing of candidates who pledge not to accept private contributions but also would restrict corporations, lobbyists and other big-money donors to candidates and ballot-measures.

California Clean Money candidates would draw from a public fund supported by either the bank and corporation tax or an oil extraction fee. CNA President Deborah Burger, R.N., noted that as many as 13% of all corporations in California paid no state income tax in 2004 while spending millions of dollars on influencing public policy. "It's time for the corporations to pay their fair share to correct this abuse."

Why We Fight

Molly Ivins beat us to the punch with her column saying she would not support Hillary Clinton for president. We don't have anything against Hillary, but we can't think of anything she has done in the Senate, except, as Molly says, triangulating. Oh, we do remember that as First Lady she bungled her high-profile role in developing a health-care reform plan that tried to cater to the insurance industry.

We think the Democrats should look to the statehouses for their 2008 standardbearer. Our preference is Brian Schweitzer, the Montana governor who has pursued a progressive populist agenda and enjoyed a 68% approval rate this past month after his first year governing a state that went overwhelmingly for Bush in 2004. The fact that Schweitzer is not running for president makes him even more appealing.

We've already gotten a couple letters from readers who saw Molly's column on the Web and anticipated that we'd run it. There is some suggestion that subscriptions will be cancelled if we run it.

So Molly joins our list of troublemakers. Ralph Nader, of course, is anathema to many Democrats who blame his 2000 campaign for diverting enough votes from Al Gore that the Republicans could steal the election. Never mind that Nader writes a cogent column and he donates his nominal fee to a nonprofit organization that I won't name lest rabid Democrats start boycotting them, too. But we've received similar complaints about Jesse Jackson, whose actions tend to polarize people; Arianna Huffington, who many apparently can't forgive for being a Republican years ago; and other columnists who routinely hit hot-button issues.

We are progressive populists but we don't drink the Kool-Aid for any sect or party. We tend to support progressive Democrats, and we think in this time of emergency progressives should set aside their differences and support Democrats in congressional elections this fall because liberty, democracy and the rule of law are at stake. But we don't think Democratic officials and officeholders are above criticism.

We're sorry to lose any readers, of course, but part of our job is to raise hell, to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted. We run more than 40 columns and articles in each issue and one or two of them are bound to tick you off. We just hope you don't take it personally. -- JMC

From The Progressive Populist, Feb. 15, 2006

Home Page

Copyright © 2006 The Progressive Populist