Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Thanks Andy: How Sauer and the Democrats Achieved Compromise

Andy Sauer is the executive director of the Connecticut chapter of Common Cause, which bills itself, according to an introductory blurb provided in a recent interview, as “a non-profit lobbying group that says it promotes responsible, accountable government, and has long fought for campaign finance reform.”

Part of this is true. Common Cause is a liberal lobbying group that has aggressively pushed campaign finance reform. The whole gaggle of liberal lobbying groups was there, according to Sauer, at the birth of the campaign finance reform bill, and their influence cannot be overstated. They shaped the bill voted into law by the legislature.

Praising Gov. Jodi Rell, Sauer remarked in the interview, “One of the first things she did was [to] meet with campaign finance reform advocates. I was there ... Tom Swan [of Connecticut Citizen Action Group], Karen Hobert Flynn as the chair of Common Cause was there, the League of Women Voters, CONNpirg ... We were the first, and to the best of my knowledge, the only registered lobbyists she has met with in the Capitol. So she made this issue very important. She put it on the radar screen for everyone.”

Most of these groups have what might be described as a money problem. It was the baleful influence of money in politics that drew Sauer to campaign finance reform. Asked why he was so passionate on the issue, Sauer said it was the mother of all reforms: “All reforms, whether it's education, property tax, environmental reforms - all those reforms require debate. It requires a dialogue between all points of view to construct the best reform. Each reform is multi-faceted. The point is, get in a room, talk, and work it out. Money distorts the debate. Time and time again, every single reform that is discussed at the Capitol, money is distorting the debate… It's a bidding war, and anyone who says otherwise is not being honest. Because there have been so many examples at the Capitol where money has trumped - end of story.”

Democracy depends upon debate; money distorts debate; therefore politics must be purged of money: That has been pretty much Sauer’s argument throughout the struggle for campaign finance reform. Liberals are not often willing to entertain debate on this point. It is taken as “given,” an unquestionable premise not open to discussion.

It is doubtful, however, whether the campaign finance reform dear to Sauer’s heart will wring money out of politics. Money will find a way. Business lobbyists swarm around the capitol because, as has been shown in three stunning economic reports, legislators are capable of distorting the market place, and not to the benefit of people who live and work in the state. It is legislation unfriendly to business that has, over the past thirty years, contributed to Connecticut’s last place position among states in job production. Everybody but Sauer knows that influence peddling by business lobbyists in the legislature is directly related to punitive bills cranked out by legislators.

Money -- and politicians too clever by half -- already have found a way in the reform bill Sauer and others regard as imperfect but perfectible at some unspecified later date. The bill contains loopholes large enough to allow through them a jingling sleigh containing the entire Democrat and Republican legislative caucuses and eight tiny reindeer.

It was the high threshold amounts challengers were forced to meet before acquiring public funds that excited the interest of former Gov. Lowell Weicker and other pro third party Independistas. These hurdles are a “pay to play” measure for challengers that somehow have not offended reformist true believers. The bill restricts funds from business agents, usually regarded as friendly towards Republicans but does not prohibit in-kind campaign contributions from unions friendly towards Democrats. Some critics of the bill feel that unregulated legislative PAC contributions open a window of possible corruption that the bill itself sought to mitigate by restricting contributions identified in the public imagination as questionable and possibly unethical.

The bill in its final form, friendly to incumbents, is hostile to primary challengers and independent campaigners. It gives a decisive edge in the distribution of campaign funds to Democrats, since party leaders control the distribution of PAC money and Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state, for which every one – not least of all leading Democrats – should offer formal thanks to Sauer and other liberal lobbying groups that fashioned the bill.

Way to go Andy!