Monday, February 21, 2005

George Orwell in Connecticut: The Public Campaign Financing Scam

Everyone in George Orwell’s “democratic” Animal Farm, we are assured, is equal. But the pigs are more equal than others.

Inequality in democracies is enforced in one of two ways: either through the extension of special privileges afforded to select groups, or through the unequal application of laws and rules that ought to be applied universally, both of which violate what used to be called “the rule of law,” a series of fundamental doctrines, agreed upon by all, that are necessary to the fair making and application of the laws.

Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr. wants to be sure that, in the universe over which he presides, everyone is equal. But legislators would be more equal than governors.

Williams favors public financing of political campaigns only for governors and other statewide offices but does not wish legislators to be treated equally and has dismissed out of hand any other reforms.

Under William’s rule, the putative benefits of public financing would apply primarily to the governor’s office. The as yet uninvestigated ethical improprieties that may fester in the legislature will remain untouched by regulations that apply primarily to an office held for the last few terms by two Republicans and Lowell Wicker, who transcends political parties.

The present system has helped to give the Democrats a 24-12 edge in the senate, and Williams does not wish to throw his advantages out with the wash water that Governor Jodi Rell proposes to use to scrub Connecticut’s government clean of the stain of ethical impropriety.

Williams’ partiality towards his party – Hey, it comes with the job – caused House Minority Leader Robert M. Ward to snort derisively, “"I think that's hypocritical.”

The governor, dubious about public financing of campaigns, has said she would consider the proposal. But, she added, “If all I see is public financing, another pot of money to help fund campaigns, that's not going to cut it.”

The governor is right to be suspicious.

The reason most often advanced in support of public financing is that tax supported elections will wring corruption out of a system that, time and again, sends the same people into office.

Corruption -- or more accurately “the appearance of corruption” -- occurs when private interests are permitted to select officeholders through political contributions and, it is asserted by those who favor public financing of campaigns, the principle of democratic representation is thwarted by special interest groups with deep pockets.

The buried axiom that gives oomph to the proponents of tax supported elections is that a healthy turnover in government is necessary in democracies. It is assumed that incumbents will lose their stranglehold on elections once special interests lose their ability to shape politics by appointing them to office.

Most of these assumptions are false.

The public financing of campaigns will not lessen the hegemony of incumbents. Quite the opposite; it will strengthen the lock hold incumbents have on their positions.

Mark Brnovich, the director of the Center for Constitutional Government at the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, says that publicly financed campaign systems do not seem to have had any impact on turnover. “More and more candidates are being forced to run with public dollars because of the advantages over privately financed candidates. Thus, I expect incumbent rates to remain high as opponents will not have the ability to outspend any incumbent; this works to an incumbent’s advantage. We also have term limits in Arizona, so that may play some role as well. Interestingly, 17 candidates ran unopposed this year! Last election it was only 6.”

In Arizona, it is not public financing but term limits that pry offices from the prehensile grip of incumbents. Public financing serves only to insure that incumbents will remain in office until they are carried off the stage by the grim reaper or, as happened in Connecticut, driven out of office by the taint of corruption.

Public financing without term limits would defeat the purposes of the friends of democracy who want to recover their government from those special interest groups whose political aims would continue under tax supported elections.

If Republicans were fun loving – not politically shrewd, just fun loving – they would yoke together the proposal for public financing with a proposal for term limits and insist that clean government types should never have one without the other.

Their slogan might be: “If it’s good enough for Arizona, it’s good enough for us.”

A companion bill to the term limit legislation would set up under the offices of the senate’s president pro tem and the House majority leader a safety net to catch the bodies as they come streaming out the windows of the legislative office building.
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