Ethics Reform: Yes, But....
It's undoubtedly a good thing that the newly Democratic House finally passed lobbying reform (and less noticed but equally important, budget reform) legislation in its first moment in power.
But as today's DLC New Dem Dispatch noted, lobbying reform won't mean much if Congress doesn't go on to deal with the real source of special-interest abuse in Washington--our crazy system of financing elections:
The much-anticipated new restrictions on lobbyist relationships with members, which were enacted late yesterday with only one dissenting vote, are fine so far as they go, though a willingness to strictly enforce bans on the worst abuses (e.g., "revolving door" arrangements that tempt members to lobby the lobbyists for future jobs) will be critical. Moreover, since most of the banned activities will be permitted if conducted as part of campaign fundraisers, we think it's important that House Democrats signal a renewed interest in cutting the link between campaign contributions and legislation, preferably by jump-starting progress toward serious campaign finance reform, including public financing of congressional elections. A good place to start might be a fresh look at the voluntary public financing plan proposed by Al Gore in 2000, which is one of the few proposals certain to pass constitutional muster.
Aside from those on both the demand and supply sides of campaign contribution checks who prefer the current system, the main sources of indifference to the kind of public financing in place in virtually every other democratic nation are twofold: the immovable object of the Supreme Court's infinitely regrettable doctrine that political contributions are hyper-constitutionally-protected "free speech," and the movable but daunting obstacle of public opposition to the use of taxpayer funds for political campaigns.
There are many possible if unsatisfying paths around the Supreme Court's roadblock, as illustrated by the various state systems of voluntary but politically coercive public financing schemes. And at the federal level, as the New Dem Dispatch suggests, Al Gore's long-forgotten but promising proposal for a public financing fund for congressional campaigns, developed by then-Gore-advisor and now Progressive Policy Institute scholar Paul Weinstein, is worth another look.
The key thing for progressives is not to give up, for even a moment, on public campaign financing as a goal. It may take a while to get there, but leadership requires, well, leadership, and succumbing to the current crazy and corruption-feeding system is not acceptable. This is something on which progressives who disagree on many other topics ought to be able to unite. --