Monday, September 26, 2005

Bi-Partisan Campaign Reform Group Lays an Egg

The bipartisan legislative working group formed two months ago to resolve differences between Democrats and Republicans in the matter of campaign finance reform is a signal failure. In order to understand the failure, it helps to remember that “bipartisan” working groups are not non-partisan working groups.

According to one news report, the working group concluded its business by agreeing on a “broad framework” for a voluntary system of public financing; the group also agreed to apply campaign restrictions to lobbyists, state contractors and political action committees.

Un-huh.

The “broad framework” recalls the infamous “framework for peace” Viet Cong and U.S. negotiators struggled to bring about during the Vietnam War. The groups that sat down together to resolve matters of war and peace ended up spending months deciding what shape the negotiating table should be. The perpetual meeting provided an illusion of conciliation, but peace escaped the negotiators, and eventually the war was decided by the communist Viet Cong and Jane Fonda.

The campaign finance reform working group has disbanded after two months of negotiations, and none of the divisive issues that necessitated the formation of the committee have been settled. In fact, the respective positions of both Democrats and Republicans have not evolved materially since the Big Bang.

The act of creation that was supposed to usher in the age of campaign finance reform began when Gov. Jodi Rell, much to the dismay of her Republican rear guard, announced that she had leapt over the political fence. The governor said she was prepared to accept public financing of campaigns, a position that long had been the darling of campaign reform advocates and liberal commentators in Connecticut’s media.

The Republican’s newly minted reform posture was that they would agree to public financing of campaigns – provided Democrats would assent to a broad framework of reforms that, taken collectively, would separate politicians from political corruption.

Standing alone, public financing of campaigns would do little to end corruption in Connecticut as we know it; additional measures would be needed. Republicans proposed measures that, if adopted, would put a serious dent in the cozy relationship between incumbents, lobbyists and state contractors. They insisted that anti-corruption measures and public financing should be yoked together. Additionally, Republicans wanted to put an end to “ad-book” solicitations, a method used by incumbents to extort campaign contributions from lobbyists and state contractors.

And here was the sticking point – at the beginning, now and ever after, world without end, amen.

Around the time former Sen. Ernest Newton was accepting a bribe from a non-profit agency, an indiscretion that very well may land him in jail, Speaker of the House James Amann was shaking down lobbyists and contractors for contributions to a charity that has retained him on its payroll.

Democrats and Republicans have been dancing around the negotiating table ever since the proposals were launched by Rell.

It is the Democrat’s flaccid response towards the anti-corruption part of the campaign reform package that has made some commentators suspect that the party of forward progress has now become the party of the status quo.

Democrats control every position of power in state government but the governor’s office. Their lukewarm response to measures that immediately would impact the state’s putrid lobbyist/politician complex suggests that they desperately want to hang on to their sinecures and fear substantial change the way one suffering from vertigo fears the heights.

It is a great pity to see the party reduced to such a low estate – because none of the reform proposals will affect the distribution of power in state government. Term limits and an anti-gerrymandering provision that redraws district lines so as to make them as much as possible contiguous with town lines would change the political universe for the better, strengthen political parties and increase the political influence of municipalities. But Republicans – fast becoming the new party of forward progress in Connecticut – are not there yet.
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