Thursday, April 16, 2009

Even Republicans Should Consider Campaign Finance Reform

This is the age of the reform movement. People demand change. It is great that many are becoming more aware and involved in public policy discussions and activism. Yet, keep in mind exactly what reform means and what will result. State government reform just for the sake of reform may only accidentally be good.

In an historical sense, Pennsylvania has been a leading reform state. It was only a few decades ago when the lobbyists for major corporations were not only considered “the 51st and 52nd State Senators” in the 50 member State Senate, they were the de facto leaders, at least on issues concerning business, corporate taxes, and employee rights. These lobbyists would give a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’, indicating how they expected Senators to vote. The Senators listened, as many of them were on the corporate payroll as legislative work was part-time. In addition, most legislators had no staff, no research office, and little ability to learn about legislation from sources other than the Governor or from lobbyists. The Governor, often a candidate literally picked and supported manufacturing titans (the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association was and still is a dominant political force), administered a state with little oversight from a relatively powerless legislature.

Reform movements emerged nationally, and within Pennsylvania and a number of other states, that empowered their legislatures. This increased the balance of powers between the branches of government. Several state legislatures became full time and obtained move oversight over the Executive branch. Full time committees now review the actions and laws of state government and actively seek outside comments. The result is a legislature that better responds to the public. It holds more hearings, receives more public input, inspects budget requests more thoroughly, considers and debates legislation and now specifies legal details that previously were left for the administrative branch to decide.

New reform movements exist today. I urge people to consider carefully what the intended and unintended (some may also quietly be intended) consequences are of these reform movements. The legislature is visible target for criticism, and that is fair. Yet many of the current “reform” organizations call for reforms straight from a conservative political agenda. Calling for a smaller legislature makes for good rhetoric. Yet proposals doing that reduce oversight powers or make it more difficult to receive public comment can do much more public harm. A part-time legislature will be less effective to respond or even listen to problems anyone has. They will also have less of an ability to do anything to solve difficulties.

The early reform movement had other successes in redistricting reform. Every state either redistricts its legislature by having the legislature do it or by an independent commission. Pennsylvania was one of reform states that placed redistricting into the hands of an independent commission. While redistricting is a complex issue, I find it a step backwards to see some proposals defined as “reform” that place redistricting back into the hands of the legislature.

In my opinion, true reform is most needed in campaign finance. Ironically, that is the one area I don’t see the conservative movement and their business allies calling for changes. Indeed, some of these groups actively oppose campaign finance reform.

The amount of money spent to run for office is one of the most dramatic changes in state politics I’ve seen in a few decades. We’ve gone from a state where people alleged that Milton Shapp was attempting to buy the Governorship to where, if he spent the same amount today, the press wouldn’t even consider him today as a serious candidate worth coverage. A few decades ago, a candidate could run a door-to-door campaign and spend practically nothing and if the candidate had a good message, win. Today, candidates need to raise lots of money to even get in the race. How much do they need? Last year, we saw one State Senate primary where a challenger spent over a million dollars, just on the primary election, while the incumbent spent almost as much.

Campaign finance may be the government reform best worth championing. Several states have approved public financing. This will probably require a long fight, and will require getting support and commitments from many candidates and public officials, but it is probably the most essential of the upcoming reforms. This is the good fight I urge government change activists to undertake.


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