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Clean Money from “Corrupticut” to Congress

Our nation’s political leaders, particularly those in Congress, would do well to learn from a state that seized, rather than deferred, its reform moment.

  • James Sample
October 11, 2007

*Cross-posted from The Huffington Post 

Last night, a Republican was the victor in one of the most important political contests of 2007. With apologies to the debaters in Michigan, the contest last night with the most promise for a more accountable democracy was won by Jason Perillo. Perillo, a publicly financed Republican defeated a publicly financed Democrat in an historic special legislative election in a state, that just a few short years ago, was Exhibit A for the best government that money could buy. Our nation’s political leaders, particularly those in Congress, and those traipsing through Iowa and New Hampshire, would do well to learn from a state that seized, rather than deferred, its reform moment.

A less likely catalyst for democratic change than Connecticut’s 113th House District is difficult to fathom. Every two years since 1974 the people of the 113th-yes, the state ranked 48th in total area has 151 districts- elected, re-elected, and re-re-elected Republican Richard Beldon. Their unwavering and trans-generational loyalty made Beldon the longest continuously serving member in state house history. The last time someone other than Beldon won the 113th was the same day Richard Nixon defeated George McGovern.

But Beldon passed away earlier this year, and a special election was scheduled to replace him. Last night, that special election marked the first test of a landmark full public financing system enacted in the wake of state contracting scandals, corruption, and official resignations that left Connecticut’s governor in prison. Candidates of both major parties participated in the program, eschewing special interest money in favor of untainted public funds.

Connecticut’s public financing system, known as the Citizens’ Election Program (CEP), is the first of its kind to be approved by incumbent legislators whose own elections could be affected. Similar public financing systems in Arizona and Maine were passed directly by voters via ballot initiative. In Connecticut, however, elected officials who had succeeded under the compromised status quo had the courage to strive-at their own risk-for a more open and competitive system. Because of that courage, a state that only recently was justifiably dubbed “Corrupticut” is now a model for states across the nation-and for the U.S. Congress.

As is true in Congress, the excessive influence of green in Connecticut affected those affiliated with both red and blue. Connecticut’s many scandals resulted in the resignations Republicans and Democrats alike. Likewise, recent bribery, ethics, and contracting investigations involving members of Congress have involved powerful members of each major party. Viewed over time, one realizes that for every Randy “Duke” Cunningham yacht (R) there is a William Jefferson freezer (D) and vice-versa. In terms of the overall impact of a system of donor-capture on public policy, reciting just two notorious players from each party is akin to analyzing football teams by mentioning only their quarterbacks-the experts know that the truly severe problems are deep in the trenches and hidden from plain view. But the cross-party similarities of corruption in Connecticut and Congress underscore an important point: advocating for a government that is as responsive to mere voters as it is to donors should be a populist, not partisan push.

The people comprehend the problem. Nationally, in October of 2006, 75 percent of likely voters from across the political spectrum said that the problem of political corruption was “extremely important” or “very important” to them, while only 8 percent said it was only “slightly important” or “not at all important.” And in a national exit poll of voters in the 2006 elections, “Corruption/Ethics” topped the list of issues cited as “extremely important.”

The people also see the answer. 74 percent of those surveyed in a June 2006 poll said they supported a proposal for voluntary public funding of federal elections. Support included 80 percent of self-identified Democrats, 65 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of independent voters. The challenge is whether, as in Connecticut, understanding can be translated into action before it is too late. Because what happens to a reform moment deferred? Make absolutely no mistake: stakeholders in the status quo ensure that it dries up like the proverbial raisin in the sun.

Substantial steps are being taken to overcome that inertia. Most importantly, Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) have introduced the Fair Elections Now Act. It is a federal adaptation of the “clean elections” models in place in Maine, Arizona and now, Connecticut. As is true in Maine and Arizona, where candidate participation and overall satisfaction rates are high, the federal legislation is much more than an anti-corruption measure. It also has the potential to invigorate public policy by emancipating even the best-intentioned politicians from the constant, unyielding tether of fundraising from the few, so that they might serve the many.

Consider that in the 2004 elections, less than 0.6 percent of Americans of voting age made a contribution to a candidate of more than $200, the threshold for public disclosure of donors. Then consider that the average House winner in 2006 spent $1.6 million and the average U.S. Senate winner in 2006 spent $9.6 million. The unavoidable consequence is that, on average, starting immediately upon election, the average House member must raise more than $1,000 per day, and the average U.S. Senator must raise more than $3,000 per day in order to sufficiently wage their next campaign. Still more to the point, nearly all of that fundraising comes from that same 0.6 percent of Americans. Even setting the anti-corruption interest aside, is it really a surprise, in such circumstances, that so many of our public policies reflect a compromised process, rather than a process of compromise?

The CEP will be available for all major party candidates and qualified minor party candidates for the legislature in 2008. For the citizens of the 113th, who now have their first new representative since just after Nixon’s resignation in 1974, change was inevitable. For Connecticut, passing the CEP was anything but. It represented a difficult, sustained, and finally successful effort to turn scandal into progress. The result is a dramatic departure from the mores that gave rise to another resignation-then-Governor Rowland’s in 2004. The Constitution State seized its reform moment, and seized back its good name. The time is now for Congress to do the same.