Sunday, December 04, 2005

After the Ball Is Over: Connecticut's Great Experiment in Campaign Finance Reform

So then, almost everyone is happy, though murmurs continue to be heard from some corners of the political barracks.

After the Democrat plan for campaign finance reform passed through the legislature, minority Republicans dissenting, Democrats launched whole symphony of now familiar sound bites. Nothing in this veil of tears is perfect they acknowledged, but imperfections in the bill could be settled later on. As Bill Curry used to say, “We should not let the perfect become the enemy of the good.” Connecticut once again had shown itself to be a reformist bellwether that got the jump on other less progressive sister states in the blue Northeast corridor. Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams advised that everyone should look upon the new legislation as a learning opportunity and a grand experiment.

There were bits and pieces in the legislation to dissatisfy almost every political interest group, with the possible exception of the Democratic caucus. Democrat leaders managed to secure the interests of their majority party while sticking a sharp pencil in the eyes of Republicans. The reform legislation prevents the usual business culprits from lobbying the legislature with dollars during campaigns but does not – surprise! – much affect the continuing raid and capture of the Democratic Party by union interests.

Among the parties dissatisfied by the legislation are: 1) some few Jeffersonian rebels in the state who feel, along with their hero, that forcing people to contribute to the maintenance of politicians with whom they disagree is a form of tyranny; 2) House Minority Leader Robert Ward, who refreshingly refuses to be pushed around by bully boys in the opposition party; 3) some liberal supporters of the legislation who continue to be torn by nagging doubts; 4) lobbyists who fear the legislation will make it less possible for them to put bread on the table and help send their sons and daughters to college; and, last but not least, 5) former governor and senator Lowell Weicker allied with Connecticut’s American Civil Liberties Union.

The good government legislation, it is safe to predict, will make for some very, very, very strange bedfellows.

Ironies abound. For instance, is it not odd to find Weicker at sword points with unions that stand to benefit from the legislation, if only by hobbling business interests? As governor, Weicker was unusually friendly toward unions. The former governor has said that his opposition is narrowly focused upon one point only. The legislation would, according to the Weickerian view, make it less possible for third parties to prevail in elections. “No Man But Yours” and political parties have never mixed well. Weicker make his reputation early on by bucking Republicans, a strategy that served him in good stead throughout his career. On the other hand, the state’s most successful lobbyist was at one time closely affiliated with Weicker: Jay Malcynsky surely would not wish to restrain his old friend and former boss from filing suits that will directly benefit both him and fellow toilers in the legislature’s vineyard.

The suit promised by the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union rests upon a decision made by the Supreme Court in a case brought forward by Weicker’s old nemesis, the Buckley clan. In Buckley v Valeo, the court ruled that “limitations on campaign expenditures, on independent expenditures by individuals and groups, and on expenditures by a candidate from his personal funds are constitutionally infirm,” which means it is constitutionally dicey to prohibit the expenditure of funds provided by political action committees and others to favored politicians. So, the sword point of Weicker’s prosecutorial thrust was fashioned in the smithy of National Review magazine by, among others, William F Buckley, brother of Jim Buckley, a true Jeffersonian rebel. Despite Weicker’s claim that his focus is narrow and he is not interested in securing the prosperity of lobbyists, the Weicker/CCLU suit will sweep the whole bill into the dust bin of history. As a lawyer, Weicker is well aware that courts are not adept at saving the baby when they toss out the wash water.

At this point, no one knows what the Supreme Court will make of Connecticut’s efforts, the most aggressive in the nation, to clean its house of corrupt influences. A court that paid close attention in its decisions to what has been called original intent likely would be inclined to permit most of the proposed reforms, unless they violate the letter of the Constitution. The Supreme Court, lately tacking in a conservative direction, has been permitting state legislatures a wide door of liberty. It is yet another irony that a conservative court, hewing to conservative principles, would be more likely than a liberal court to uphold such far reaching campaign finance reforms.
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