Congressional Democrats have received much (well deserved) flak for their recent "compromise" to fund the illegal and increasingly unpopular occupation of Iraq. Almost as sad has been the failure of the party to advance real campaign finance reform. Americans are at least as disturbed by the increasing role that money plays in our politics as by the Iraq disaster. In national exit poll following the 2006 elections, "Corruption/Ethics" topped even Iraq and the economy as issues voters deemed very important. My home state of Maine is one of three states (Arizona and Connecticut being the others) that have enacted voluntary public financing of state house and senate campaigns. Our state's experience in the last election convinces me that public financing of House and Senate campaigns at the federal level is essential both to restore public confidence in government and to encourage a broader range of political debate.
In Maine's last election, the new public financing system has demonstrated its merits, with 84% of the candidates for the legislature running with public financing and members of both parties expressing general satisfaction in the system. Despite its recent success in Maine, some lobbyists and corporate interests denigrate public financing with some familiar cliches -- it is welfare for politicians or forces citizens to subsidize views they do not support.
Subtly tying together cynicism about politicians with hostility to welfare recipients may be tactically effective, but the line will not stand close scrutiny. The Senate's Clean Election proposal, co-sponsored by Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), requires that a candidate seeking public financing prove they are serious and viable. Candidates for the Senate must collect 2,000 contributions of $5 plus 500 more for each Congressional district. Thus in my home state, a US Senate candidate would need 3,000 $5 contributions in order to qualify. In this context, it is also ironic that the guardians of the public treasury so seldom tally up the costs of our current system in terms of sweet heart, pork laden legislation that is clearly a gift to lobbyists and their corporate sponsors in return for campaign contributions.
In our past gubernatorial election, the qualifying threshold was 2,500 contributions and the system worked. No frivolous candidate was funded. As to the contention that public financing subsidizes views some do not support, the very instruments and ethos of democracy are committed to providing the opportunity for dissent to be heard. Fortunately, many citizens still properly value dialogue and debate. Public campaign finance in Maine contributed to a gubernatorial race in which issues of substance were debated. The possibility that Maine might enact a Medicare style health plan on its own, a theme only raised through citizen initiative in a few other states, was eloquently advocated by the Green candidate for governor, who ended up with about 10% of the vote. (I believe that were Maine to enact an Instant Run-off Voting system, the Green would have received many more votes, but fear of electing a far right Republican governor deterred many.)
Given our corporate media, reaching the public will always cost money and will need to be financed by some source. Without public financing, those who run for public office will be predominantly men and women who are either wealthy themselves or who are willing to do the bidding of wealthy interests. The political leaders who emerge from such a process are likely to be impervious to the concerns of most citizens and thus likely to fuel dislike for politicians, this lending momentum in Catch 22 fashion to the easy association of politicians with welfare cheats. By removing the historic barrier of the need to raise private money, Maine's Clean Election Act has given us legislative races with more candidates from diverse backgrounds and a more representative legislature.
Maine has a ways to go before its electoral turnout can match the levels achieved by some other major industrial democracies. Established interests still have disproportionate influence on the process. Money-especially as highly concentrated as it has become now-has a way of finding the gaps in any system and periodic reforms and readjustments will always be necessary. Maine's system allows candidates facing a privately funded candidate whose spending exceeds established thresholds extra "fair fight" funds, but Maine law is too vague on the kinds of PAC sponsored ads that can trigger additional funding. During the recent campaign, Republican and Democratic governors' PACs ran ads portraying their candidates in a positive light, but because the ads did not advocate a specific vote, state official refused additional funding to the Green and independent candidates.
No public financing system can adequately match all of the resources a privately financed candidate might be able to employ. The Senate bill addresses this concern in part by striving to lower the cost of campaigns. Participating candidates would receive vouchers for air time, and the FCC would manage the distribution of air time and networks would be required to honor such vouchers. George Will and other conservative pundits have argued that such requirements are a violation of free speech, but concentrated private power is as much a barrier to full political dialogue as government restrictions are. The major media have and continue to rely on extensive public privileges and subsidies. The requirement that some of their air time serve a larger democratic purpose is both economically and politically justified. Public campaign financing is an issue whose time has come. If politicians value their reputations and even their jobs, they would do well to get on board.
John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2007
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