Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

John Edwards on Cleaning Up Government

It's pretty clear that corporate lobbyists have too much influence in Washington, DC, and that the corruption caused by big money interests giving legalized bribes to politicians is out of control.

John Edwards has never taken a dime from a Washington lobbyist, not only in this campaign, but in any political campaign he has ever run, since his first race for the Senate. In this, he is different from the other candidates, and way ahead of them, in my opinion, although Obama has, to his credit, also rejected lobbyist money for his first time in this presidential race.

At Yearly Kos, John Edwards challenged Hillary Clinton to stop taking campaign contributions from lobbyists, and she refused.

Hillary on Lobbyists at Yearly Kos

MODERATOR: Senator Edwards has a very straightforward question here, which is will you continue to take money from lobbyists?

CLINTON: Yes, I will. I will. Because you know, a lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not, represent real Americans. They actually do.

Later, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, Clinton asserted that the solution to the corruption in Washington is public campaign financing. We already have a public campaign financing system in place for presidential elections. John Edwards then committed to take public campaign financing for the primary, and challenged the other candidates to do the same. Once again, Clinton has refused (as has Obama).

Hillary on Public Financing

In an interview with George Stephanopoulos, Clinton said the following when asked about her connection to disgraced donor Norman Hsu:

CLINTON: I think that we've done all that we can do at this point, including returning the money, but I believe that the only answer to this entire set of circumstances is public financing, something that I strongly support, that I'm going to try to do when I'm president, because there is no doubt that the cost of campaigns, particularly trying to get on television with our advertising, and all the things that people have to do in a modern campaign, are just out of control. It's not good for the country, and it's not good for the system.

Perhaps Hillary Clinton is actually in favor of some ideal form of public campaign financing that we don't have yet, however, we do already have a public campaign financing system in place for presidential elections. The existing public campaign financing system for presidential elections does not require mandatory participation, however, because the Supreme Court has ruled that mandatory participation in that system would be unconstitutional.

Many people, including John Edwards, have said that they would support an improved system of public campaign financing. Hillary Clinton appears to support that, too, although it's not clear what her proposal is.

A true commitment to public financing would involve both being willing to work within the existing public financing system and proposing serious reforms that would strengthen our existing public financing system, and obviously it would be easiest to actually accomplish this if it can be done in a way that could be upheld as constitutional. Although I'm no constitutional expert, it seems that John Edwards has done both.

Here's a little bit of history on our current public financing system for presidential campaigns, from Wikipedia:

All of these efforts were largely ineffective, easily circumvented and rarely enforced. In 1971, however, Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act, requiring broad disclosure of campaign finance. In 1974, fueled by public reaction to the Watergate Scandal, Congress passed amendments to the Act establishing a comprehensive system of regulation and enforcement, including public financing of presidential campaigns and creation of a central enforcement agency, the Federal Election Commission. Other provisions included strict limits on contributions to
campaigns and expenditures by campaigns, individuals, and other political groups.

The new law was immediately challenged on First Amendment grounds in Federal Court, resulting in a landmark Supreme Court decision, Buckley v. Valeo. The Buckley decision recognized that regulation burdened the rights of free speech and assembly, but held that the compelling government interest in preventing corruption or its appearance justified some restrictions on free speech. The resulting decision upheld contribution limits, so long as they were not so low as to prevent campaigns from amassing the resources necessary to communicate effectively with the public, disclosure requirements, and voluntary public financing. It found limits on expenditures to be unconstitutional infringements on free speech. It also restricted the reach of the law to speech by candidates and parties, that is, groups established for the purpose of electing candidates, and to communications that expressly advocated the election or defeat of a candidate, using phrases such as "vote for," "vote against," "support," or "defeat."

I understand this quote to be saying that the Supreme Court has said campaign finance law can limit the maximum amount of donations, in order to prevent corruption or even the appearance of corruption, but cannot require candidates to participate in a public financing system, and cannot limit their spending. On Friday, John Edwards proposed a new public financing system that would go much further toward preventing corruption, but would fall into these guidelines.

Reforming Campaign Finance to Strengthen Small Donors: John Edwards believes elections should be about ideas rather than money. Few Americans can afford to make $4,600 contributions to gain access to presidential candidates, and the integrity of our campaign financing system depends upon smaller donors continuing to play an important role in the political process. Edwards' campaign is built upon the support of small donors – in fact, 93 percent of the campaign's donations come from donors contributing less than $100. As president, Edwards will create a new Grassroots Presidential Financing System to match small donations under $100 by eight to one, making two $100 donations as valuable to a campaign as a single $1,000 donation. He will also reduce the maximum contribution from $2,300 to $1,000 per person, to better reflect the incomes of most Americans. Edwards will create a system of full public financing for Congressional candidates and require corporations to disclose their political activity and spending.

Eight to one matches for small donations would sure go a long way toward maximizing the power of small contributors, while a lower maximum donation of $1000 would limit the influence of wealthy people and corporations. Edwards would also prevent lobbyists from giving campaign contributions, again, to prevent corruption.

Ending the Unique Power of Lobbyists: Edwards will prohibit all candidates and federal office holders from accepting contributions from lobbyists and will prohibit federal lobbyists from acting as fundraisers or bundlers for federal candidates. He will limit the ability of lobbyists to secure lucrative earmarks by enacting a Constitutional version of the line-item veto, where the president can require an up or down vote on special-interest spending. Edwards will close the revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street by reinstating the five-year ban on lobbying by former top government officials and by banning former lobbyists from taking executive branch positions related to their former clients. Finally, he will curb lobbyists' influence by increasing disclosure requirements for lobbyist activity and by prohibiting government executives from accepting gifts and travel from lobbyists and their employers.

JRE's government reform agenda includes several other much-needed reforms, including voter verifiable paper ballots.

Strengthening the Voice of Ordinary Citizens: To ensure everyone's vote is counted, Edwards will require that all voting machines, including electronic ones, use paper ballots that can be verified by voters. He will also give D.C. residents voting representation in Congress, allow Election Day Registration in federal elections, fight voter suppression and intimidation and end the disenfranchisement of former prisoners who have served their time. In order to increase citizen engagement, Edwards will ask one million citizens to participate in biennial Citizen Congresses – national town hall meetings where regular Americans tackle national issues together, without the filters of interest groups and the media. Similar projects have given citizens a voice in community solutions across the country, including in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Archon Fung praised Edwards' Citizen Congress idea in the Boston Globe:

Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards unveiled a "One Democracy" initiative last week to enlarge the role of ordinary Americans in politics. The "Citizen Congress" is the most original part of this policy. If elected, he would convene millions of Americans in town halls throughout the country every other year to deliberate and advise public leaders on difficult issues such as healthcare, poverty, and foreign affairs.

The idea that government should talk directly to citizens about political issues, and that citizens should talk to each other, has the potential to reinvigorate American democracy. Citizen participation through influential assemblies such as Citizen Congresses would address three critical failings of the political system.

Here's a citizen journalist video report of John Edwards proposing his One Democracy Initiative, recorded by YouTube user dteubner. These are parts 2 and 3 of the speech, which gets into the meat of his proposals. Part 1 can be found here.

If you're interested in hearing more from that day in Keene, NH, you can download an MP3 here that includes the speech, as well as a question and answer session that followed it. Also, here is part of a Q&A session with CSpan viewers that aired before the speech (I didn't tune in early enough to catch it all).

Edwards has been talking up public financing and government reform and deriding the corrupting influence of lobbyists for quite some time now. Here he discusses these issues on a recent edition of Meet the Press:

Edwards will answer questions during a live online discussion tomorrow at 2 PM Eastern.

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