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Amy Traub

The Cash-Policy Nexus

Campaign finance reform sometimes looks like an abstract issue. After all, it’s a question of process, at least one step removed from the concrete policy outcomes that affect people’s lives. Except that once you dig deeper, the leap from campaign cash to policies that pass has a way of shrinking. Although every politician will insist up and down that he or she is never swayed by campaign donors, special interest campaign contributors nevertheless exercise outsize influence. Even without outright corruption, deep-pocketed donors lavishly finance candidates friendly to their positions, influencing policy by impacting who gets elected and becomes a policymaker; once in office, elected officials take substantial time away from their public responsibilities to focus on fundraising. As a result, donors get more access than regular citizens and constituents. And this shows up in policymaking.

We’ve seen this over and over again as we explore substantive policy issues in DMI’s Marketplace of Ideas series, from Maine’s innovative law lowering the cost of prescription drugs (where passage was aided by the state’s Clean Elections system, according to the law’s sponsor), to the national movement to guarantee paid sick days (which might pick up more steam, Congresswoman Maloney argues, if not for the influential campaign donors who are opposed), to how good a deal the public gets when the state of Arizona sells off former federal lands (much better now that Clean Elections has been adopted in the state, according to activist Dennis Burke).

A new report from Citizen Action provides still more examples in the context of New York State. New Yorkers, the report finds, could be paying less for prescription drugs, health insurance, and even concert tickets if only special interest money were less prevalent in our state elections. We might also be protecting wetlands and, perhaps most significantly, reforming the state’s rent laws by repealing harmful provisions like vacancy decontrol. On all these issues, Citizen Action concludes, special interests have donated bountifully and the public interest has been frustrated.

So what’s the solution? See the way Congressman Jerry Nadler put it at the Marketplace of Ideas after the jump.

“The solution is obvious. How you get there is not so obvious. The solution, I think, is a bill that John Tierney and I introduced in Congress which was instituted in Maine and Arizona and a couple of other states called the clean election system. Basically, it's a total public financing system in which you show you're a serious candidate by getting a certain number of five or ten dollar contributions. Then the government gives you a check, and that's the campaign, there's no other funding allowed. You'd have to overturn the Buckley vs. Valeo Decision of the Supreme Court. Otherwise people can opt out of the system, as Mayor Bloomberg has opted out here, and made a mockery of our rather good public financing system in New York City. But that ultimately is the solution. You have to get that kind of money out of the political system.”

Short of overturning Buckley v. Valeo, the Clean Elections reform Nadler describes is very much on the table at the state level in New York and elsewhere. The challenge is getting incumbent legislators, who benefit from the current system, to change it. In Arizona, it took a voter referendum to enact clean elections. In Connecticut, legislators acted, but only after particularly stinging scandals. What will it take in New York and other states?

Amy Traub: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 8:27 AM, May 28, 2009 in Democracy | Government Accountability | Governmental Reform | New York | Politics
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