Editorial Memorandum: The Solution to Pay-to-Play Politics

Common Cause proposes “Clean Government for Change”

Reform package that includes a federal lobbyist contribution and fundraising ban, state pay-to-play laws, and a new campaign finance system based on small donors, limited public funds

The events of the past six months dramatically illustrate the need to change the way America pays for elections. Two-thousand and eight was the year the fruits of the deepening systemic corruption of American politics became daily headlines, and our long national neglect of public ethics and accountability became impossible to ignore:

The sentencing of Jack Abramoff to another four years in prison for conspiring to corrupt public officials.

The fall of former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), whose long, cozy relationship with lobbyists was known for years, but was only brought to an end after legal prosecution and conviction;

The arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) for trying to sell Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat, extort campaign cash from a children’s hospital and hand out government favors to big contributors;

The collapse of the mortgage giants after Congress – which reaped millions from Wall Street in campaign cash – deregulated the industry and ignored repeated warnings of disaster.

Continued revelations of misspent billions in public dollars, often awarded through inadequate contracting processes, in Iraq, the aftermath of Katrina, and elsewhere; and

The withdrawal of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s (D) Cabinet nomination due to a grand jury investigation into pay-to-play allegations.

These are just illustrations of a powerful reality: America must change the way it pays for its political campaigns, from Congress to county council races. Blagojevich, Stevens and others may go to jail, but the real culprit is the pay-to-play political system where political access and influence are bought and sold.

Common Cause is proposing a major reform package that, if enacted, will strike at the heart of this corrupting system and culture. Our “Clean Government for Change” package would:

  1. Ban lobbyist contributions, bundling and fundraising for members of Congress and the President;
  2. Adopt Connecticut-style pay-to-play laws at the state level, to ban campaign contributions and fundraising by lobbyists and government contractors.
  3. Create a new campaign finance system that enables candidates who swear off special interest money to run vigorous campaigns on a blend of small private contributions and public funds;

The current pay-to-play culture dominating American politics threatens to steal the change people voted for in record numbers in 2008. Our election-eve poll found that 77 percent of the voters believe that large campaign contributions will prevent Congress from tackling the critical issues facing the nation, like the economic crisis, health care and global warming. And 70 percent believe that dependence on large campaign contributions from the banking industry was a major factor in triggering the financial crisis. (Lake Research Partners, Nov. 3-4, 2008)

America’s current system of campaign financing is a continuing invitation to more, and even worse, scandals at every level of government. It erodes one of the most essential components of healthy democracy: Public trust in its core institutions. Today, our system is widely seen as inherently corrupt and unable to deal with real issues. It invites public cynicism because those who want something from government – whether it’s a tax break, a lucrative contract, or favorable legislation – make the largest contributions to political campaigns.

It is difficult to tell the difference between legal contributions to political candidates and contributions made with an express quid pro quo. Today’s big-money-fueled campaign finance systems create an environment ripe for corruption involving the promise of campaign contributions in return for specific government action, whether in the form of regulations or government contracts. As Congress prepares to pass perhaps a $1 trillion stimulus package that will feature road work and other infrastructure projects in the states, we are likely to see this pay-to-play culture get even worse.

Many lobbyists, who work to influence legislation that affects their clients, are deeply involved in the fundraising process for public officials. At the national level, lobbyists act as bundlers, performing the role of fundraiser for a candidate by soliciting contributions from friends and associates, allowing them to funnel huge sums of money to the candidate(s).

Today, state legislators and members of Congress must daily walk a fine line in order to avoid the appearance that they are favoring their large donors. Worse yet, the system has evolved to where lawmakers who serve on committees with jurisdiction over specific issues and sectors of the economy now receive much of their campaign money from the very industries they are supposed to regulate. Conversely, politicians, such as Gov. Blagojevich, are tempted to actively “sell” access and government favors in return for contributions.

The ultimate solution is for states and the federal government to create a voluntary system of public funding under which candidates run vigorous campaigns funded by a combination of small contributions and limited public dollars.

Common Cause and its allies have developed a new campaign finance model that combines the best from successful state public financing systems – such as the “Clean Elections” laws in Connecticut, Arizona, Maine, North Carolina and New Mexico, as well as matching funds systems in Minnesota and New York City – and Internet-base small-donor fundraising strategies.

This 21st Century approach – which focuses on changing the source of campaign funding instead of spending limits – will allow candidates who swear off special interest money to run for office on a blend of small donations and limited public funds. Bipartisan legislation is being prepared now that adopts this approach to modernize the outdated presidential public financing system and to create a new program for Congress.

Our urgent reform package for America would also build walls between lawmakers and the private interests that seek to buy their votes, by enacting specific pay-to-play laws. Given the broad array of companies that do business with state and federal governments, this is a difficult challenge, but it is critical to the task of severing the connection between big money and politics.

In 2005, in response to major statewide scandals, Connecticut lawmakers banned lobbyists, state contractors, and prospective state contractors from making contributions to legislative and statewide offices. In December 2008, a United States District Court judge upheld that ban on contributions from lobbyists and contractors doing work with the state government, finding:

In light of Connecticut’s recent history of corruption scandals involving high-ranking state politicians, I conclude that the legislature had a constitutional, sufficiently important interest in combating actual and perceived corruption by eliminating contributions from individuals with the means and motive to exercise undue influence over elected officials.

After scandals in New Jersey, the legislature passed tougher pay-to-play laws placing new restrictions on contributions by for-profit entities that have or are seeking New Jersey government contracts. These restrictions apply to contracts at the state, county, and municipal levels of government.

In Illinois, Gov. Blagojevich allegedly sought large campaign contributions from state contractors before a pay-to-play law went into effect on Jan. 1, which would have banned contributions from businesses doing contract work with the state in excess of $50,000.

The solution is not simply better enforcement of current law, or even merely more transparency for more transactions between officials and interested parties. Those are important elements, of course, but the root of the problem is the system itself – a system that has been nurtured and protected by the handful of interests who for decades have benefited the most, usually at the expense of the average taxpayer. Simply put, we need reforms that eliminate the near-addictive need for massive campaign donations.

Our package would end the pervasive conflicts of interest in the current system, open the door to more citizens in the electoral process by encouraging small donations, and restore a measure of confidence in the integrity of our institutions and the people who serve them.