Weeks: Making Washington Work Is a Bipartisan Job

Posted September 22, 2010 at 3:52pm

Conventional wisdom teaches that election season is hardly the time for grand bipartisan bargains.

[IMGCAP(1)]Ideologies solidify. Electorates divide. Partisan actors seek to rally their faithful by claiming the high road on issues and eschewing any kind of compromise that can be seen as lending credence to the other side’s point of view.

But every now and then, Washington stops working to such a degree that issues move to the background and process takes center stage. At such moments, even a deeply divided and cynical public is ready to bridge the ideological gap and support system-level reforms aimed at putting Washington to work again in the public interest.

In the Watergate era, presidential abuses of power brought on a collapse in public confidence in the integrity of government itself and forced a historic, bipartisan overhaul of the nation’s campaign finance system in time for the 1974 election.

Today, Washington is not rocked by a single headline scandal, but by a steady stream of big-money abuses in which the electorate perceives the parties as beholden to special-interest groups funding their campaigns. A January Supreme Court ruling permitting unlimited corporate and union spending in elections — which has brought an unprecedented, if predictable, rise in political spending this election — is exacerbating these concerns.

Taken together, such abuses and a tough economy have helped bring congressional approval below 20 percent in recent Gallup polls, the lowest level since polling began post-Watergate.

The symptoms of this big-money problem are clear, and they are hardly limited to one political party or the other: a senior Democratic Congressman under investigation for accepting donations to pet projects from groups with business before his committee; a Republican leader raising large donations in a “cash-for-speaker” scheme that promises personal meetings and “much more” for heavy hitters; and a leaked fundraising call by a longtime subcommittee chairwoman requesting financial support from a lobbyist on the basis of “my major work … in your sector.”

In this context of mounting cynicism over the role of special interests in our elections, the rationale for Members of Congress from both political parties to forge a compromise solution is stronger than ever.

One important step would be a straightforward disclosure law requiring corporations to take responsibility for their ads when availing themselves of the Supreme Court’s unlimited “free speech” electioneering allowance. Indeed, such disclosure laws have long been a mainstay of both Republican and Democratic opinion on campaign finance reform and are roundly supported in public opinion polls. A disclosure bill already passed the House in June and requires just one or two Republican votes to move forward in the Senate.

But disclosure — like the camera fitted to BP’s ruptured oil well in the Gulf — can do little more than remind a disaffected public of a problem they already know. A second and more sweeping solution is needed to end once and for all the long-standing practice of campaigns funded by special interests.

The Fair Elections Now Act, introduced in the House by Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) and Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.), would establish citizen ownership of congressional elections. Modeled after successful Fair Elections programs in eight states, the law would require participating candidates to say no to special interest money and accept only donations less than $100 from their constituents. Candidates who reach a qualifying threshold of 1,500 in-state donations would then be eligible to receive sufficient matching funds to run a viable campaign.

The purpose of the proposed legislation — as expressed in recent public interviews with tea party conservatives and MoveOn progressives alike — is a Congress accountable to the people, not wealthy special interests. Speaking of the former group, Republican pollster Mark McKinnon said, “There is a conventional myth that Republican voters are opposed to campaign finance reform, but [recent] research shows that Republican voters, like all other voters, believe our system of electing representatives is irreparably broken.”

The Fair Elections Now Act is scheduled for a vote in the House Administration Committee this week — the first such vote on comprehensive campaign finance reform in decades. It has won backing from 164 co-sponsors in Congress who are sensitive to the public demand for wholesale reform of the way we fund campaigns. If another 54 Members take the hint from their constituents on the left and the right, a major milestone in democratic reform will be possible this fall.

In a year of partisan rancor, that would be an accomplishment worth campaigning on, whatever your constituency.

Daniel Weeks is president of Americans for Campaign Reform, a bipartisan group chaired by former Sens. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) and Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.).