The Audacity of Reform

Joel Bleifuss

For some pundits, President Barack Obama’s spectacular fundraising success during the 2008 general election has removed campaign finance reform from the top of the reform agenda. 

How much stronger might our economy be today if legislators hadn't counted on the financial sector to bankroll their campaigns?

Yet, as far as the influence of big money in politics goes, this past election was little different from previous ones. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, candidates for federal office raised a record $5.3 billion. About 72 percent of that money came from people connected to business interests, with Democrats getting 55 percent of the corporate pie and Republicans getting 45 percent. 

No surprise there. Money flows to those in power.

Leading the pack in 2008 were the bankers at Goldman Sachs, who doled out at least $5 million to federal candidates. Citigroup employees came in second at $4.2 million, and the folks at JPMorgan Chase third, at $4.1 million. 

What do the financiers from these three companies expect to get for their $13.3 million? It’s hard to say. Members of Congress play for pay” with more subtlety than former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Yet their game is the same.

Take the bank bailout vote last October. Overall, House members who voted for the 2008 Emergency Economic Stabilization Act have received 41 percent more money from the financial sector since 1989 than their colleagues who opposed giving the no-strings-attached blank check to banks. In the Senate, lawmakers supporting the bailout raked in 139 percent more than their no”-voting colleagues.

How much stronger might the economy be today if our Senators and Representatives hadn’t counted on the financial sector to help bankroll their campaigns? If in November 1999, they hadn’t voted for the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Financial Services Modernization Act, thereby deregulating the banking industry?

There is reason for optimism. A system of public campaign financing – like that proposed by the nonpartisan Public Campaign (www​.pub​li​cam​paign​.org) and others – has so far helped bring Clean Elections” reform to seven states. 

In the 111th Congress, the Fair Elections Now Act, which is based on the successful state model, will be introduced in the Senate by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), and in the House by Reps. John Larson (D-Conn.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.). The Democrats are in control of Congress and the White House, so perhaps it has a chance to pass.

With powerful majority party leaders in both chambers of Congress supporting robust public financing, increasing pressure on lawmakers to spend their time raising money, and a public demanding change in the way Washington does business, reformers have the opportunity to profoundly transform the current system,” says Nick Nyhart, president of Public Campaign.

In the 110th Congress, then-Sen. Barack Obama co-sponsored this legislation. On Aug. 2, 2007, speaking to the Senate, he said, If we’re serious about change, we need to have a real discussion about public financing for congressional elections. Because even if we can stop lobbyists from buying us lunch or taking us out on junkets, they’ll still be able to attend our fundraisers – and that’s access the average American doesn’t have.”

We changed residents at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but if we don’t change the way our elected leaders are bought and sold, our chances of seeing real change will come to naught – no matter how audacious our hopes.

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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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