How to 'Drain the Swamp'


FOR ADVOCATES of public financing of congressional campaigns, the good news is that the party that has been arguing against fundraising excesses and the pay-to-play ways of Washington is about to come into power.

The bad news is Democrats are now in a position to start raking in the big special-interest contributions that had been going to Republicans.

The perquisites of power have a funny way of taking the edge off a reformer's zeal.

Representatives of a coalition of public-interest groups that are trying to promote public financing of congressional elections expressed great optimism during a Chronicle editorial board meeting last week.

Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public campaign, said the prospects for passage of "clean money" legislation -- similar to the rules now in effect in Arizona and Maine -- were buoyed by election-day surveys that showed voter disgust with corruption and ethics was a major reason the Republicans lost control of Congress. Another cause for optimism is the commitment of U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and No. 2 in the leadership, to the public financing of elections. He intends to introduce such legislation in February.

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's "first 100 hours" agenda includes a variety of much-needed reforms to curtail the coziness between lobbyists and elected officials -- such as new restrictions on gifts, meals and travel paid by special interests.

But for most legislators, the real items of value they request and receive from special interests are the campaign contributions that give incumbents an almost insurmountable advantage against challengers.

Regrettably, the "clean money" model on the statewide ballot last month was corrupted by the California Nurses Association's addition of a provision to effectively tilt the rules against corporations on initiatives. Voters wisely saw through the attempted power play and rejected Proposition 89. The rejection of that flawed initiative should not deter state legislators from resurrecting a bill by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, to bring "clean money" to California.

The principle of the "clean money" concept is straightforward: If a candidate can gather enough evidence of grassroots support -- as measured in small, individual contributions -- then he or she can qualify for a level of public financing that should be sufficient to run an effective campaign. It's a voluntary system, but voters are well aware of which candidates are "clean" and which are not. The idea is to get candidates out talking to voters, instead of dialing for dollars.

If the Democrats really want to "drain the swamps" in Washington and Sacramento, then they need to include "clean money" on their 2007 agenda.

See the article on San Francisco Chronicle website

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