Scharff in the Huffington Post: How to Make the Impossible Possible [Op-Ed]

How to Make the Impossible Possible with, Yes, a Government Commission

The Huffington Post

Karen Scharff

October 25, 2013

Want to avoid having to do anything? Create a government commission! Except right now there’s a commission in New York that, despite some questions about its start, could do the improbable, if not the impossible–get elected officials to pass effective campaign finance reform, including public funding of elections.

When the State Senate failed to pass reform earlier this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, which is holding itsthird public hearing Oct. 28 in New York City. If this Commission does its job properly, and there is reason to hope it will, it could lead to what seems impossible – passage of systemic reform including a small donor matching system.

The urgency for reform was increased by the Oct. 24th court ruling allowing unlimited contributions to super PACs. The ruling, including the same Shaun McCutcheon involved in the current Supreme Court case aimed at breaking down more limits on money in politics, struck down New York’s $150,000 limit on individual contributions to PACs.

“This could usher in an era where super PACs call the shots in campaigns all over the state, not just in the city,” David Donnelly, the executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund, told the Times.

According to the New York Times, not know for hyperbole, “New York’s campaign fund-raising laws are already much less restrictive than in many other states. State-level contribution limits are unusually high, loopholes are ample and regulations are rarely enforced.”

But, some will ask, if Gov. Cuomo had to appoint the Moreland Commission because the Legislature would not pass serious reform, why will they now in the face of a Commission they tell reporters they don’t take seriously? Don’t we have to just settle for anything the Legislature will accept? Is the Governor himself willing to expend the political capital needed?

The Commission can change what’s possible if they make the demand for change irresistible by showing just how bad the current situation is. The more the Commission exposes, the more pressure it will put on the Governor and the Legislature, and the more comprehensive reform becomes possible. This is especially important because when it comes to changing a deep-seated play to pay culture, weak reforms will have little effect – they aren’t better than nothing.

Will the Commission meet that responsibility? After a promising start, there were media reports that the Commission was not being allowed to do its job due to interference from the Governor’s Office and that it was told not to issue subpoenas to some well-connected entities. There were also reports of an attempt to achieve a quick deal on “reform” to end the investigation.

As a result of that bad publicity, the Commission has announced it is proceeding aggressively, issuing subpoenas and “following the money.” Its co-chair, Onondaga District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, has publicly promised that in its first report due December 1 the Commission will have some tough investigative findings and thorough recommendations for reform. And Gov. Cuomo has again made statements in support of systemic reform.

There is already strong public backing for reform. Even without any recent new cases of corruption, a new Siena College poll found more than 80% of New Yorkers still believe corruption is a serious or very serious problem in State government, down only slightly from a poll taken at the height of the corruption wave when multiple state legislators were being led away in handcuffs. And though most of those polled were not familiar with the Moreland Commission, when asked if it should continue its investigation, three quarters said yes. Clearly, New Yorkers are desperate for change. An earlier Siena poll found strong support for public funding of elections as the solution.

The new poll also found that New Yorkers think Gov. Cuomo is doing a better job of working for reform than federal prosecutors, the Attorney General or any other government body. It would be a mistake to see that as satisfaction. Rather, it means that they expect him to deliver real change, not the appearance of change.

What would constitute success for the Commission? Exposing bad behavior and even replacing individual lawmakers who break laws does no good if the campaign finance system that encourages corruption is not fundamentally changed.

That kind of change is not as hard as it might sound because it’s already been accomplished in other states and New York City. Fair Elections reforms must include:

Reasonable limits on the amount of individual campaign contributions, so candidates are not beholden to a few contributors.

A public match for small donations, so candidates have to reach out to and pay attention to the needs of many of the voters in their districts. This also makes it possible for candidates to run by relying on the donations of ordinary people who can’t afford big amounts. The public match makes those small donations add up.

An independent watchdog with the ability to enforce the new rules and punish violations.

Regular and timely reporting of all campaign contributions and spending in a way that is easy to find for everyone.

These simple reforms will not suddenly make everyone pure, but they will put up substantial barriers to bad behavior and make it much easier for elected officials to do the right thing. And that’s what we need, a campaign finance structure that enables candidates to actually represent the voters, not the big money interests they now have to depend on to fund their campaigns.

Given the vital issues facing New York that should be decided on the basis of what’s in our common interest, not the interest of a few, we need this reform now, passed in the legislative session that starts in January.

In sum, the Moreland Commission can perform an incredibly important service. It can document how things work now and why structural reform is absolutely necessary to return state government to the people. And then it can make full throated recommendations for that kind of reform.

And then we need Gov. Cuomo, who was able to overcome strong opposition and pass same-sex marriage and gun control, to use his leverage and power to finally pass effective campaign finance reform.

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