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Small Movement in Congress Eyes Campaign Finance Reform

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Durbin072506.jpg

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) (WDCpix)

The stories emerge periodically to spark mild scandal: A powerful congressman funnels tens of millions of dollars to his largest campaign contributors. A White House cabinet nominee steps down over an investigation into his campaign finances. A seven-term senator is indicted for hiding expensive gifts provided by an oil contractor. A prominent lobbyist goes to prison for bribing public officials.

In their wake, these episodes are often treated as isolated events — the misguided acts of a few bad apples who overstepped bounds and betrayed public trust. Yet in the eyes of many lawmakers and campaign finance reformers, they’re symptoms of a much larger problem: namely, a system of money-in-politics that lends special interests greater sway than individual voters, forces politicians to be fundraisers before legislators, and practically invites occasion for impropriety — or at least the perception of it.

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Congress.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The result, critics argue, is a symbiosis in which lawmakers grow dependent on the same deep-pocketed special interests they’re expected to regulate — a technically legal arrangement that nonetheless lends lobbyists disproportionate access and influence, and corrodes public trust in lawmakers’ motives.

The money-in-politics issue was propelled into the national spotlight during last year’s general elections, when Barack Obama became the first presidential candidate to refuse taxpayer money since the public financing system was put in place 32 years earlier — a decision that allowed him to raise nearly $750 million during the campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Obama at the time said the system was outdated, and he vowed to overhaul it as president.

Requests to the White House for comment on Obama’s intentions were not returned.

Yet despite a popular sense that money plays too great a role in the process — and despite a recent push from seasoned campaign finance reformers newly energized by the change in administrations — there appears to be little appetite in Washington this year to change how candidates are elected.

Not that some aren’t trying. In March, a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed legislation to overhaul the way congressional campaigns are financed. The measure — sponsored by Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) in the upper chamber, and Reps. John Larson (D-Ct.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.) in the House — would allow congressional candidates to access public funds in exchange for disavowing large contributions from individuals, and all contributions from lobbyists.

By providing public funds, the theory goes, the bill would attract candidates who otherwise might not have the resources to run for public office. By limiting contributions to small sums from individuals, it would prevent candidates from relying too heavily on any one donor or interest group. Popular candidates would still raise more money than others, — the goal is not to give everyone equal funding, just the opportunity for equal funding. The real aim, supporters say, is to prevent a minority of wealthy donors from holding excessive sway, perhaps at the expense of everyone else.

“You can never prevent all money from entering politics, and that’s not the goal,” said Josh Zaharoff, deputy director for programs at Common Cause, a campaign finance reform group. “The goal is to separate that link between lawmakers and their largest contributors.”

Yet critics of publicly funded elections maintain that political donations are just another form of speech. By capping contributions, they say, Durbin et al are stealing First Amendment rights.

In March, the day Durbin introduced the bill, the Center for Competitive Politics, a group formed to fight campaign finance regulation, issued a statement arguing that “special interests” and “public interests” are one and the same. “Our public policies, however foolish or wise they may appear,” said CCP President Sean Parnell, “are the natural result of the many often-conflicting interests, perspectives, and priorities of the American public being enacted by elected officials, not some mythical ‘corruption’ caused by citizen contributions to candidates that share their values.”

Yet that argument doesn’t fly among campaign finance reformers, who don’t consider money from corporate-hired lobbyists to fit the “citizen contributions” category. Speaking at a campaign finance forum in Washington last month, Trevor Potter, founding president of the Campaign Legal Center, wondered why, if corporations can’t vote, they should be allowed to give cash to candidates. “Who’s democracy is this anyways?” Potter asked.

Highlighting current trends, Common Cause released a report last week revealing that the 18 members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense were responsible last year for directing more than $355 million in earmarks to various defense contractors — companies that donated a total of $1.3 million to the sponsoring individuals. Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), who heads the subpanel, alone accounted for $166.5 million worth of those earmarks — $73.5 million of which went to 13 companies that gave him between $58,550 and $11,500 each in the last election cycle, Common Cause found.

Earlier in the year, Murtha made headlines when CQ reported that the PMA Group, a defense lobbying firm with close ties to the Pennsylvania Democrat, had secured nearly $300 million in 2008 earmarks for its clients — funding requested by no fewer than 104 House members. Those lawmakers, CQ found, have taken in more than $1.8 million in contributions from PMA since 2001.

The charge from campaign finance reformers is not that the trend constitutes bribery (which is illegal), or even that there’s a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the contributions and the earmarks (certainly not one that can be proven). But, they argue, the relationship is still egregious, sending the unsubtle message to voters that money buys influence over even the best-intentioned lawmakers, and those without need not come knockin’ — something Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig calls “good soul corruption.”

There are other trends to indicate that the power of money in Washington is only growing stronger. Since the end of President Clinton’s term in 2001, according to Lessig, both the number of lobbyists in Washington and the dollars per hour demanded by those lobbyists have doubled. The combination, Lessig argues, is good evidence that those dollars are paying dividends.

“If the price is going up and the supply is going up, then the production must be going up,” he said at the campaign finance forum, sponsored by the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice.

Researchers at the University of Kansas recently bolstered Lessig’s theory, finding that multinational firms lobbying for a recently changed tax benefit reaped, on average, a 22,000 percent return on their lobbying investment.

But tales like that one, many experts argue, are just the symptom of a more deeply rooted problem. “Lobbyists are not the problem,” Lessig said. “It’s how campaigns are funded that’s the problem … We can’t afford to ignore this dependency any longer.”

Under the Durbin-Larson bill, candidates wishing to tap public funds would first have to prove viability by raising a minimum amount of cash from in-state donors, who could give no more than $100 each. Candidates meeting that state-specific threshold would then receive a lump sum for the primary election, and could raise addition funds from individual donors, again not to exceed $100. For every $1 raised in-state, the government would chip in $4.

Primary victors would receive another grant for the general election, again with the stipulation that additional donations couldn’t top $100, and again with the enticement of a four-to-one federal match for in-state contributions. The matching funds would stop flowing at a certain point, but candidates could continue to raise unlimited small donations from individuals.

The bill would also prohibit participating candidates from accepting any donations from political action committees, the groups organized by businesses and ideological groups to influence elections.

Aside from the benefit of lending citizen-voters greater voice in elections, supporters say the reforms would save lawmakers the many hours they spend raising reelection funds.

“Americans would be shocked if they knew how much time members of Congress and candidates seeking office must spend dialing for dollars and attending fundraisers,” Durbin said in a statement announcing the proposal.

Some advocates for campaign finance reform argue that the Durbin-Larson proposal would be a step in the right direction, but wouldn’t fix the problem of special-interest influence altogether. Bruce Ackerman, professor of law and political science at Yale Law School, is pushing a form of blind trust, in which candidates could accept contributions from anyone, but the donors’ identities wouldn’t be known. The result, Ackerman says, would be that those who donate simply to gain influence would stop doing so, because lawmakers wouldn’t know who to reward. “The only people giving to the candidate [would be] those who believe in his principles,” he said.

With this year’s congressional calendar filling quickly with controversial proposals like health care reform, a Supreme Court nomination and, perhaps, climate change legislation, even supporters of the campaign finance proposal concede the odds of the bill moving this year are slim. Also, many lawmakers are reluctant to toy with a system that’s already treated them well.

“It’s always hard to convince Congress members to change the way they got into office,” said Zaharoff, of Common Cause.

Still, following a historic election year in which more Americans voted than ever before, advocates for campaign finance reform appear as energized as ever to see to it that the voices behind those votes are heard in Washington. At stake, they say, is nothing less than the legitimacy of the nation’s claim to representative democracy.

“What does it matter if millions vote,” asked Lennox Yearwood Jr., president of the Hip Hop Caucus, a community outreach group, “but the election is not fair to begin with?”

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