Story and Photo by Ken Krayeske • 1:30 AM EST
Bob Edgar, executive director of Common Cause, talks up public financing of congressional campaigns at a press conference at the Connecticut Legislative Office Building Monday, May 11, 2009. Behind him looms Rep. John Larson, one of the leaders in the House pushing the Fair Elections Now Act.
I. TV News
Pushing 11:45 or so, Mark Davis of Channel 8 had no time for pontificating about the Fair Elections Now Act, a scheme cooked up by Congressman John Larson and Sen. Arlen Specter, among others, to publicly finance Congressional campaigns.
Davis knew his deadline for noon broadcast loomed. He wasted no time, pouncing the moment Rep. Larson, the fourth highest ranking Congressman in the House, received an open floor for questions from emcee Common Cause CT executive director Cheri Quickmire.
Davis asked the ring leader three quick questions about nuts and bolts of FENA financing. Larson didn't answer any of them to Davis' satisfaction.
What about the robocalls? Davis followed up.
It's not going to stop 527s or 521s, Larson confirmed.
How are you going to fund it? Davis pressed. He didn't seem happy.
The Senate and the House differ, but Larson said he wants the monies from the sale of the analog spectrum.
It's a one-time deal, Davis said of the sale.
When we sell the station frequencies, we'll put the monies in an interest-bearing fund, and we'll expand the check-off on tax returns, Larson said.
How much is the average grant going to be, Davis asked.
The winning average of 455 districts, Larson said.
A few moments later, a woman in the press corps wondered how much it would all cost.
"I haven't done the calculations," Larson said. Auctioning the spectrum will be worth billions, he said. They want to get the bill moving forward, and there will be other suggestions.
If Congress gives away the analog spectrum the way they practically donate the public resources of gold and oil to corporate interests, the people will be lucky to reap millions.
II. Corrupt, not Corrosive
Congressmen are always having to reach for money, Larson said, leading off the services. More than twenty local liberal dignitaries lined up against the wall of conference room 1E in the state legislative office building to join the choir seeking to save Congressmen from running perpetual election campaigns.
Dialing for dollars leaves little time for Congressional business.
"It's not that the process is corrupt," Larson said, "it's corrosive because of the amount of time you have to spend and the money that ends up in the system."
Bob Edgar, a preacher at age 19, a six-term Congressman who served his freshman year with the Watergate Class, a former general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ and now national executive director of Common Cause, preached the gospel of clean elections, too.
Two corrosive influences in Washington are money and ego, Edgar said.
Congressman Courtney said that corrosive was John's wordsmithing, not his.
Considering congressmen with freezers full of cash, why corrosive and not corrupt?
There's always going to be corruption, this system is not corrupt, Larson said. The engine has been driven by money, and it continues to be exponentially exacerbated, Larson said.
What about AIPAC? Will the bill cut the influence of AIPAC? I asked.
This will not reduce anyone who is an effective lobbyist. He noted that Common Cause and the Service International Employees Union support the bill, and they are effective lobbies.
We take this one step at a time, Larson explained. Next, he wants to expand Congressional terms to four years each and stagger them.
"An appropriate first step lays the marker down," he said. "We believe there is too much money, that's what wrong."
III. State Senate President Pro Tem Don Williams
"Let me join in praise for Congressman Larson," Sen. Williams said. The church of state will no longer sanction the marriage of of politics and money. We are divorcing the way we make laws from the appearance and reality of special interests, Williams said.
As Williams was exiting Room 1E in the LOB, I asked him if the Senate will discipline Sen. Thomas Gaffey of Meriden for his being corroded by money in politics. Gaffey took a slap on the wrist for double billing his state job at CRRA and his personal political PAC for travel and phone expenses. Between three fines and paybacks, will fork up $29,000 back to the people.
On May 6, Williams was non-commital to Mark Davis about punishing Gaffey, a senator already once ethically stained for dating a lobbyist who was seeking money from the committee Gaffey chaired. Gaffey resigned his chair.
Monday, Williams said the Senate would not punish Gaffey for getting caught funneling electoral cash into his pocket.
"No, we believe it was a long and appropriate investigation," Williams said. "It does not give rise to sanctions by the Senate."
My notes then show that Williams mentioned something about an ethical process for legislators beginning in 1910.
Standing in the front like a good choirboy, Tom Swan, executive director of the Connecticut Citizens Action Group, hit the crackberry in the middle of Sen. Williams' speech.
V. Mid-Vignette Review
Three U.S. Congressmen, Connecticut's two top legislators, many other elected officials, state agency heads, and the usual suspects of Democratic politics showed up at a press conference to promise fixes for a corroded (not corrupt) Congress.
They acknowledged it won't remove foreign lobby influences from Congress. They didn't know how much it was going to cost. They didn't know how to pay for it. They didn't mention the war.
But they know public financing is going to make America a better place.
VI. The War
Was Israel's bombing of Gaza a war crime?, I asked Larson afterwards.
What makes it a crime? He asked, knowing we both know that he sponsored the resolution in the House to pat Israel on the back in January 2009 after it notched a 10-to-1 kill rate against Palestinians using American munitions.
Disproportionate response. Bombing civilians, schools, ambulances, I said.
Any time you have war, he said, there is disproportionate use of force.
What justifies that use of force?
What justifies war? Larson responded.
Corporate capitalism, colonialism, exploitation, the military-industrial complex, profits. I returned. What justifies war to you?
Three-thousand people dying in the World Trade Centers, he said.
But Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Nor did the innocents in Gaza.
VII. Beth Rotman
Among the supporters of the federal law stood Jeffrey Garfield and Beth Rottman from the Connecticut State Election Enforcement Commission Citizen's Election Program. It was good to meet Rotman in person, having corresponded by email a few times about the Connecticut campaign finance law as far back as 2007.
I gave her my copy of the May 2005 issue of Ballot Access News. In each edition of BAN, published monthly by Richard Winger in San Francisco, BAN includes an electoral chart tracking state-by-state issues, such as third-party vote totals or signature gathering efforts for gubernatorial or presidential elections.
In May 2005, Winger charted how states treat Congressional ballot access issues. From 1980 through 2004, Florida, Georgia, Arkansas and West Virginia offered voters the fewest choices, Winger wrote.
Because of restrictive ballot access laws - either heavy signature requirements or prohibitive fees, the average U.S. House contest in at least two of those states, during the last 25 years, has only had one candidate.
In May 2008, Winger reported that the Coalition for Free and Independent Elections, a non-profit he runs in tandem with BAN, had donated money to finance lawsuits challenging petitioning requirements for House candidates in Alabama and North Carolina. In the former, candidates for one Congressional district must collect more signatures than statewide candidates need. In the latter, no independent candidate has ever appeared on a state-printed ballot because of the 20,000 signature ballot hurdle.
VIII. Unilateral Disarmament
So, Congressman Larson, based on the inability of certain candidates to get on the ballot in some states, but still offering them money, has there been any effort to address the fact that there are 435 requirements to get on the ballot for Congress, yet only one standard for public financing?
"Ballot access wasn't part of this legislation," Larson said. "Third parties have to qualify."
He tried a bait-and-switch. Ignore the fact that FENA creates an under-inclusive class that probably fails equal protection analysis, mainly, independent candidates in North Carolina who can access the fund only if they qualify for the ballot, but who history shows cannot possibly qualify for the ballot.
Instead, Larson begged us focus on the numbers - 1,500 donations of less than $100 each will get the pot of money to the candidate.
The numbers on Larson: he has raised $2.80 for every penny collected by his opponents in the last three races. In other terms, Larson has raised $4 million to the $14,000 collected by his challengers since 2001, according to Collins in Saturday's Bristol Press.
The FENA has a provision lowering the amount of the grant given to incumbents who run unopposed. Given that provision, will you unilaterally disarm in the next election, Congressman Larson?
"I don't think anyone can unilaterally disarm when you are in a nuclear arms race," Larson said. "Money I raise goes to candidates" in other districts. He helps other good Democrats.
"I've never been unopposed," he said, delivering the punchline to laughs, "I hope that day comes."
IX. Murphy's Law
Larson sensed Congressman Murphy backed into a corner. The questioner wanted to know if Murphy would voluntarily abide by the funding caps in the bill. Larson fended off the demon journo, raising his voice holy high and fire and brimstone.
"Don't for a minute stop what you're doing," Larson said. "You're at risk. It's the money in the system. Lobbyists are fine and decent people. No matter how altruistic it sounds, I want to make sure we are in the majority because without it, we don't have a shot" at passing any of this legislation.
Murphy meekly followed up: "There's no way I can vote for a public financing bill if I'm not re-elected."
"It's entirely voluntary," Larson said, reasserting his presence at the mike. "Someone else may decide not to play by these rules," but as long as the rules remain the same, Democrats will utilize those.
For good measure, Larson added the hearing will be in June, and the House will vote on it before adjourning in August. Although Larson acknowledged earlier in the press conference he doesn't quite have the 218 signatures needed to bring the bill to the floor.