David Sirota is the author of Hostile Takeover (Crown Publishers), which explores how corporate interests have corrupted public policy. He is the co-chair of the Progressive States Network, a research and advocacy organization that supports state lawmakers.
It is now conventional wisdom that the 2006 election was decided on two major issues: Iraq and corruption. Exit polls show that's the case, and even Karl Rove admits it. That this storyline has become such a given is particularly humorous for me. It was just a few months ago that I was criss-crossing the country on a 40-city tour for my book,Hostile Takeover, telling audiences not to listen to Washington pundits who said corruption important; that, in fact, corruption was going to play a major role in the election, and that if Democrats refused to take the issue seriously when they claimed the majority, we could be in for the shortest congressional majority of the last century.
But, many people I met asked, “What does it mean for Democrats to take the issue ‘seriously’?” The answer is simple: They must attack not only the headline-grabbing excesses of gifts, trips and meals, but also, more significantly, go after the core of the problem, which is the nexus of money and politics. Specifically, they must push to publicly finance all congressional elections.
I know, I know—I and other groups like Public Campaign have probably sounded like a broken record on this issue for a long time now. But that's only because the campaign financing system really is at the root of corruption. We have a system that is legalized bribery—legal campaign contributions go in, and legal legislative favors go out. But just because it is legal, doesn't mean it isn't unethical and isn't one of the major reasons why our government can no longer solve problems. It is. A government cannot solve problems if members of Congress making decisions are forced by virtue of their campaign finances to appease the Big Money interests that are often at the root of those problems.
So what are the prospects for congressional action on public financing with an election mandate at lawmakers' back? Here is a look at the proponents and opponents—and what will make the difference.
The Good Signs
Buried in a Sunday New York Times article we get our first glimpse of the major players pushing real reform:
"Spurred by the election results, several Democrats in addition to [Illinois Democratic senator] Mr. [Barack] Obama are pushing bigger changes. Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, is preparing a proposal for some form of public financing or free broadcast time for congressional candidates to reduce their dependence on campaign donors. Common Cause says that 21 newly elected Democrats, more than half the class, and 69 incumbents have signed a pledge endorsing the idea."
Obama could be particularly pivotal. As I reported from my interview with him for The Nation earlier this year, the Illinois senator has shied away from pushing any proposal on any issue that fundamentally challenges the Washington power equation. However, the one issue that he appears willing to consider spending his political capital on is campaign finance reform. As an Illinois state legislator, he authored a bill to publicly finance his state's judicial elections. And recall his appearance on "Meet the Press" in January of 2006:
SEN. OBAMA: This is the part of the job I dislike the most, which is having to raise money. It is something that none of us are immune from because of the amount of money that has to be raised in order to get on television and run campaigns. It is a problem that I have to deal with, it’s a problem that John McCain has to deal with, it’s a problem that Russ Feingold has to deal with. It’s something that all of us wrestle with. My belief in terms of moving forward on the ethics legislation is that we’ve got some low-hanging fruit that we should take care of right away...There are some easy things that we can do that hopefully will build momentum for some of the tougher stuff, which involves, how do we reduce the enormous amounts of money in politics generally? And those are going to be some tough questions, because they might involve, for example, asking the question, “Why don’t we have free television time, for candidates, to reduce the amounts of costs?” My suspicion is that NBC, just like ABC and CBS, wouldn’t necessarily be wild about those approaches, but that’s the kind of conversation over the long term we’re going to have to have. This is a starting point.
MR. RUSSERT: Would you consider public financing of campaigns?
SEN. OBAMA: I think that we should consider all approaches that would reduce the amounts of money that are required for campaigns.
Obama, of course, is not alone. Well-respected lawmakers have been pushing public financing for some time, including top Democrats who authored bills in the last Congress. Meanwhile, polls show the public has long supported the concept. As recently as 2000, the Washington Post reported that national polling on the issue showed "respondents did show enthusiasm for [public financing systems] that have already been endorsed by voters in Maine, Arizona, Vermont and Massachusetts." Even "when pollsters offered criticism of public financing, suggesting for instance that it would be 'welfare for politicians' and would encourage more fringe candidates to run, support for full public funding remained at 67 percent." The overwhelming popularity of the idea explains why at least some moderate Republican senators have indicated interest in supporting the concept.
The Bad Signs
In the same Sunday New York Times piece that offered hope for public financing, we also get a good look at the opposition:
"[Public financing] has never gained much traction in Congress, in part because lawmakers balk at the notion of helping challengers who want their jobs. 'You use taxpayer dollars to finance people who may not only be fringe candidates but—I was going to use the term ‘nut’—may be mentally incompetent,' Ms. Feinstein said."
Sen. Feinstein's logic, of course, is a patently dishonest canard, though you've got to give her credit—her lie is an effective one in how it brings up thoughts of taxpayers having to fund the Charles Manson for Congress campaign. But let's get back to reality: Every serious public financing proposal—including the ones that have passed in states like Arizona and Maine—create thresholds to almost totally limit the possibility of "mentally incompetent" people from receiving taxpayer dollars to run a campaign. These thresholds often involve a candidate having to raise a certain number of small dollar contributions from a geographically diverse base in order to qualify for public dollars.
Nonetheless, Feinstein is not the lone Democratic obstacle to public financing. In a May 2006 Roll Call article, the spokesman for now-Majority Leader Steny Hoyer,D-Md., said that public financing "is not something he's looked at or focused on extensively." That's Washingtonese for "he will fight against it all the way." And really, should we be surprised? Hoyer is the same lawmaker who brags to reporters about heading up the Democrats’ K Street Project. Incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a longtime proponent of public financing, may balance Hoyer's position, but she too has recently gone out of her way to make clear that public financing was not something she would use her leadership position to push with the entire Democratic Caucus. "It's her personal opinion," her spokeswoman told Roll Call , "downplaying the significance of the leader's pronouncement" in support of public financing on national television in 2006.
Pelosi's wavering likely comes, in part, from K Street pressure. As highlighted by recent pieces in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal , a new army of Democratic-affiliated corporate lobbyists is salivating at the prospects of passing goodies through the new Congress. These mercenaries know the only way they can serve their clients is to transform massive corporate campaign contributions into legislative favors. A public financing system would effectively cut that scheme off at the knees, meaning K Street is probably already working hard to prevent any strong reforms that target the intersection of money and politics. These are not people who play nice —they play hardball. Remember, just a few months ago Big Business tried to unseat Portland, Oregon's mayor specifically because he championed public financing. The Washington version of that small-town West Coast drama would be even more severe.
What Will Make The Difference?
Because public financing so fundamentally threatens how business is done in Washington, it will only become reality if progressives hit the trifecta of massive grassroots/netroots pressure, support from the batch of new lawmakers who ran on an anti-corruption platform, and an infusion of star power from someone like Obama. And make no mistake about it: the latter two wild cards have no chance of happening without the grassroots component—a narrowly focused, carrot-and-stick campaign to embarrass, cajole and pressure Congress to act.
With so many issues and expectations for the new Congress, can a campaign like this be built? Absolutely. Well-organized groups like Public Campaign and Common Cause already have substantial political infrastructure to work with. Similarly, though the progressive netroots' has lacked a fully developed pan-issue ideology, it has consistently coalesced around the concept of taking political power from elites and redistributing it outside the Beltway. Public financing is, at its heart, the most nonideological way to do just that.
The question, in other words, is not "can" but "will"—will this campaign be built? Let's hope the answer is yes.