As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Sen. Durbin to introduce Congressional Election public financing bill

(I'm to the left of the real-life Senator!)

This morning several of your favorite Kossacks, along with yours truly and additional bloggers, met for about an hour with Sen. Dick Durbin in Los Angeles for a wide-ranging discussion on a host of issues.

Next month, Sen. Durbin will introduce a bill calling for public financing of Congressional elections. He anounced this on the floor of the Senate in January, and the bill should be ready by March, the culmination of a years-long effort to address the problem. This is long overdue and it's something progressives should be fighting for, as it cuts to the core of all the negatives that flow from politics. And with the #2 man in the Senate pushing for it, with bipartisan co-sponsors according to him, then it's not only a fight worth fighting but one that we can achieve.

The meeting was held in a hotel restaurant in Century City, and oddly enough, the only other time I was there was to interview Peter Frampton. And it was in the same room! (no vocoder available this time out, unfortunately)

Sen. Durbin led off by discussing his Fair Elections bill (working title). Obviously, money is probably the most impossible thing to get out of politics, especially if you buy the legal argument that money equals speech. But if you can level the playing field and make it so that the impact of money is not as great, at least you give everyone a fighting chance. The way to do this, in Durbin's view, is to offer an opt-out, so that critics cannot claim that this violates the First Amendment; however, that opt-out would immediately impact the amount of money any Clean Money opponent would receive. In other words, if you're a publicly-financed candidate and your opponent opts out of the system, you immediately receive DOUBLE the money you would normally be entitled to.

(NOTE: this is not related to the Presidential public financing bill of Russ Feingold's, to which Barack Obama co-signed as a sponsor last week. This is about public financing for elections in the Senate and the House.)

There would be language regulating 527s and IEs in the bill as well, but again, no details yet. Sen. Durbin said it would be closely modeled on the Clean Money laws that govern elections in Arizona and Maine. Under those systems, a candidate who shows viability by collecting a certain number of $5 contributions then qualifies for public financing. This allows for a more diverse set of candidates and not simply ones who can self-fund; frees up those candidates to spend time with constituents instead of constantly being on the phone asking for money (which the Senator described as "all-consuming"); and gets us closer to a system where lobbying money doesn't drive the agenda in Congress.

What's interesting about this is that Sen. Durbin is fairly new to this issue. His pat line before, he said, was that "I don't want to give one cent of my tax money to fund David Duke's campaign." But he has come to understand the corrosive power of money in politics, and how the current system is irreparably broken. Campaign ads are "the biggest cash cow the TV networks have ever seen," so expect them to be the chief detractors of this bill. One positive sign is that the Senator is close to lining up union support for the measure. This is enormous. The unions actively opposed the Clean Money initiative in California, sending it cascading to defeat. Durbin was right when he noted that unions simply cannot keep up with Big Business over the long haul in terms of the money race. Indeed, it's not what they're designed to do. In 2005 unions led the fight against Gov. Schwarzenegger's Special Election in California, and emerged victorious. But it took tens of millions of dollars, forced many unions to ask for extra dues from their members, and took such an effort that there was no way they could repeat the trick for the 2006 gubernatorial election. And they didn't. And we still have a Governor Schwarzenegger. It's unsustainable to expect unions to fight our battles monetarily. We need to pull in the reins and give candidates the option of public financing.

This will not be an easy fight, but the key will come in laying the groundwork with the public. People intuitively understand the influence of money in politics. If they would just be given the facts, that we lose more in tax dollars on quid pro quo corporate welfare than we would ever need to publicly finance elections, I think common sense would dictate that this way is preferable. But right now, the education on the subject is not there. I consider myself fairly well-informed, and didn't know about Sen. Durbin's proposal until today, despite the fact that he mentioned it on the Senate floor a month ago. We need to apply pressure on this. The relevant Senate Committee is the Rules Committee chaired by Dianne Feinstein. She has agreed to give the bill a hearing, but she is not exactly a champion of this measure. She needs to hear from her constituents on this one, and to understand why this is so very important.

There were plenty of other highlights in the meeting. Martini Republic has a good roundup with a pic. I'll add some bullet points:

• Yes, it was amusing when Durbin boasted that Obama has thousands of friends on "MyFace." But give him a break, he's 62.

• Sen. Durbin was eloquent on the subject of Darfur, and went out of his way to mention it. He's got a four-pronged strategy that includes a "Plan B" sanctions-based effort by the Administration; trying to shut down the Sudanese oil market by using financial institutions (they do their oil business in dollars, and at some point we could possibly head that off); divestiture at the state, local, and personal level; and changing US law to allow us to arrest foreign nationals suspected of genocide on foreign soil (as we can currently do with regard to tortue, a la Charles Taylor of Liberia, who Durbin did actually call "Chuckie Taylor"). A lot of this is going through the newly-created Human Rights Subcommittee created by Sen. Leahy in the Judiciary Committee.

• Durbin supports the Dodd-Menendez bill to restore habeas corpus, and called those who ramrodded the bankruptcy bill through the Senate "heartless bastards." You read that right. He did seem willing to put together bills that may fail for the purposes of getting vulnerable Republicans on the record about various issues. This is how habeas and bankruptcy may go, trying to throw wedges in to split the Republicans (and certain Democrats as well, on those bills).

• On Iraq, the Senate appears to be trying to craft a consensus on next steps. They want a consensus Amendment that can get all 49 available Democratic votes. Durbin seemed supportive of Rep. Murtha's readiness strategy, but stressed the importance of the vote count (as you would expect any former Minority Whip to do).

There was more, but I want to re-stress how important it is that the #2 man in the Senate is on board with full public financing of Congressional elections. This could revolutionize the way politics is undertaken in this country. With corruption on people's minds, there's never been a better environment to introduce something like this. But it has to be explained smartly and honestly to the public in order to succeed.

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