The reform debate

Matt (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.

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The Progressive Half a Loaf Problem

Health Care for America is not single payer--a vision that, for both political and budgetary reasons, is unlikely to be achieved in the near future. Health Care for America

It's so depressing to watch progressive activists accept a bad status quo.  Progressives are supposed to change the status quo, not just work within it.  And in reading over this post from Roger Hickey about their new health care plan, I'm struck by the total timidity in actually dealing with the problem and the unwillingness to accept the job of social change agent.  

The problem with health care is not the policy details but the insurance industry, which is a business model dedicated to denying care to people and keeping the money, or what's sometimes known as negligent homicide.  The quote above is from our progressive group, not our Democratic groups that want to compromise.  We're negotiating with ourselves, in other words, before we even get to the table.  

More than that, the idea that health care reform negotiations are possible with the murderous health care industry is laughable.  Here's what makes this plan a political loser, from Goozenews.

My point is that opposition to this plan will come from the people who make their daily living from collecting that 16 percent of GDP. And that opposition will be intense. The insurance companies led the last war on health care reform. The drug companies, the device and equipment manufacturers and organized medicine will lead the assault on this or any other plan that is serious about controlling costs.

Opposition to single-payer health care and muddled plans like this one or the Wyden one will be the same in intensity.  And this one is weird and complicated, like every other plan that isn't single-payer.  This is an issue for the voters.  We will have to go to the voters and basically ask them to vote to end the health insurance industry.  Barring that, and you're just not serious about universal health care.

I see this kind of 'half a loaf' strategy popping up everywhere among progressives, from the ethics fight to energy to media reform.  We seem to be ignoring what Clinton learned in 1993 - these people don't compromise on issues fundamental to their control over the economy, ever.  They will fight as hard your smarty pants complicated plan that takes 'their concerns' into account as hard as they will fight your liberal plan that actually works and can be easily explained.

There is no implementation of policy this cycle.  We have to set up a series of debates over fundamental values, and then ask for voters to decide in 2008.  Fortunately, it's very unlikely that these industries are going to let anything go through this cycle, so we have time.

Let's get real.  At this moment in history, the public is on our side, not the side of the corporate elites.  Asking for half a loaf isn't a compromise, it means that nothing will be enacted, and it also means that progressives are failing at representing a public that just asked us to fundamentally reshape how the economy works to reduce economic risk.

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Earmark Silliness versus Public Financing

I'm as outraged as anyone at Harry Reid's apparent move to protect secret earmarks.  I have a call into his office, and I'm told that there were some negotiations going on that suggest that Reid's work isn't as bad as it's being reported.  I tend to trust Josh Marshall on this, but my general reaction is less annoyance at this specific fight and more frustration at the avoidance of the real issue at hand by various parties involved in the ethics and corruption field.  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.

The good government world simply doesn't recognize this.  Take Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, which does amazing work on corruption and is pushing for various amendments and procedural changes in how members and lobbyists relate to each other.  Or Public Citizen.  Or Common Cause.  Or any of the good government groups.  They are all pursuing the same remedies that failed in the 1970s, process reforms to restrict the flow of money into politics, sometimes on the inflow side (campaign finance) and sometimes on the outflow side (earmarks).

These reforms do not and never have worked and I'm really tired of liberal groups focusing on them as some sort of panacea.  You might be able to make the argument that the Supreme Court in Buckley crippled some of these reforms, but the reality is that you can't pull money out of politics.  You can't.  Not gonna happen.  Can't happen.  Money is political, and restrictions are just another creative problem for election lawyers and lobbyists to tackle.  Te good ones will tell you this themselves.

What you can do is change the incentives for candidates to direct this money for the public welfare, and that means, drumroll, public financing of elections. If you are serious about ending legalized bribery, you would look at a situation where freshman members have to raise $25,000 a week every week for the next two years with corporate lobbyists salivating to hand them cash and say 'Hey, that's a bad incentive model.  We should change it'.

Dick Durbin has a bill to publicly finance elections. It's there.  It's worked in Maine and Arizona.  If a quarter of the effort went into the push to publicly finance elections that goes into this stupid and rather petty fight over earmarks and criminalizing lobbying, we would be a lot further on restoring public ownership of our political system.

I'm getting pretty upset with the Democratic leadership in the Senate, but I'm going to be honest and point out that this is a result of serious strategic flaws in the funding, good government, liberal single-issue, and political consulting communities.  Harry Reid and Max Baucus are not good for progressives, but they are operating in a world we can change.  That we won't change the rules on them is our responsibility.

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Restoring the Public

It's really wonderful that a nice bunch of freshmen have been elected to Congress.  But did you know that in order to have the $1 million each one will need to have by the end of this year, each one will have to raise on average $25,000 every single week?  And that doesn't include the money needed to retire campaign debt, which lobbyists are only too happy to help with.  

In all the discussion of ethics and lobbying reform, one piece that is rarely acknowledged is that the process liberal reforms of the 1970s, the ones designed to keep money out of politics and restore an ethical Congress, largely failed.  Tony Coehlo and business Democrats took power in the Democratic Party, and the oil and defense industries gradually took over the Republican Party.  From 2001-2006, one could argue that America had the most corrupt Congress and President in history, and it's not like our government was particularly ethical from 1995-2001, either.  The process liberals assumed that top-down restrictions could prevent corruption, or at least limit it.  This just doesn't make sense on the face of it - it's impossible to ask people with business before the government for money and not be influenced.  And it's impossible to ask for $25K every single week and be an effective Congressman - it just takes a lot of time to get that much, even if you're very very good.

So it's significant that Dick Durbin is going to put forward public financing for campaigns. We understand that we get the government we pay for, and if it's business that pays for government they'll get what they want and the public will get screwed.  The obstacles to public financing are fairly high.  Ironically, most members want it badly because they really hate raising so much money, but for some reason don't think that it's possible to make it happen.  I talked to one member who told me that the only real solution to the structural problems in Congress is public financing of elections, but that it's never going to happen.  Lots of them feel this way.

There are two basic obstacles to public financing of elections.  One is Bush, who will veto any real bill.  Two is Mitch McConnell, the impressively mean and intelligent Senate Minority Leader.  McConnell is a machine politician, shipping corporate money to Republicans all over the country and wielding huge amounts of power as a result.  He hates campaign finance laws, and will oppose this with everything he has.  McConnell's going to have to pick his battles though, since there's a lot of defense to play and he's going to have to fight off card check and other serious attacks on his business cronies.

Anyway, it's a very good thing that Durbin is pushing this.  It's a major sign that the Democrats are serious about restoring the public's ability to govern.

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Mandate?

Earlier in the election cycle, the news was filled with stories of corruption and abuse of power -- Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, and Duke Cunningham, and more recently Mark Foley, Tom Reynolds, and Dennis Hastert. Much of that has fallen to the side as the news from Iraq continues to get worse. But while the issue that has defined this election more than any other is the war in Iraq, an analysis I've done of three dozen of the closest House races shows that the Democratic candidates, the DCCC, or outside organizations have run significant paid media campaigns on the pay-to-play politics of Washington. The airwaves have been filled with ads connecting what GOP reps voted to give Big Pharma and Big Oil in exchange for campaign contributions, as well as the lobbying scandals and campaign contributions in general.

In many of these three dozen races (not a complete analysis by any stretch), voters will choose candidates who have promised to take on the special interests when the get to Washington. I also expect to see between 90 and 100 incoming members of Congress -- incumbents and challengers alike -- who have taken the Voters First Pledge to support public financing of elections, stricter lobbying and ethics rules, and greater transparency on the role that lobbyists play in raising money for candidates.

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