04/11/2013 11:04 am ET Updated Jun 11, 2013

Think Again: Campaign-Finance Reform in an Age of Corporate Influence

Fred Wertheimer wrote a new op-ed this week arguing for campaign-finance reform, including the need for public financing of elections to help reduce corporate influence in our elections. This one happens to be in Politico, but given the level of importance and longevity of the issue, it could've been anyone making the same argument in any news outlet at almost any time in the past 40 or more years.

Wertheimer has been a Washington institution since he joined the citizens' lobby Common Cause. He is now the president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan nonprofit group that works to strengthen democracy and empower citizens in the political process. Unlike most political institutions in Washington, Democracy 21 hits Democrats just as hard as Republicans.

I arrived in D.C. in the summer of 1982 to work in the public interest community, and Wertheimer was already a macher of considerable proportions. I don't think I've ever spoken to him, but I always admired his type: the person who comes to Washington to fight the good fight, but loses, then loses again, then loses some more, all while watching his opponents move on to positions not only of power and influence but also great wealth.

I'm sure this assessment is a little unfair, and Wertheimer can probably point to a few victories over the years. But the fact is, no single problem plaguing American politics is more vexing than that of the power of money in politics. I've written about this problem more times than I can count, most recently in a lengthy article on Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) and the future of liberalism for The Nation.

Wertheimer's recent op-ed is devoted to Democracy 21's newest project to reform the campaign-finance laws of New York state, where Gov. Cuomo has expressed support for reform, but has yet to take specific actions to accomplish that goal. Following his victories on marriage equality and gun control in the state legislature, however, he appears to be ready to make clean elections a priority.

A few weeks ago I attended a meeting with corporate leaders who favor such reform that was organized by the Committee for Economic Development and the Brennan Center for Justice. I was pleasantly surprised by the passion Gov. Cuomo, who was the featured speaker, expressed regarding the topic:

People ... have become disassociated from their government, and they just don't believe and they don't trust and they think that government isn't about them. And that is a killer. ... Nothing will restore the [public's] trust more than campaign finance [reform]. And until we have [that], nothing else will.

As Wertheimer explains:

The proposed New York state reform effort is modeled on a New York City system that has been successfully used for the past 15 years to finance city elections. Under the system, the first $175 of a contribution to a New York City candidate is matched with public funds at a 6:1 ratio. Thus, if a donor contributes $150, the candidate ends up with a total of $1,225. According to studies, the New York City system has resulted in many new small donors and a more diverse group of contributors.

This is crucial because, as Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, told me, "Most people recognize the biggest problem with our political system is that elected officials have the wrong priorities because they spend so much time raising money from a few special interests whom they need to pay for their elections." Norden calls public-matching funds for small contributions "the game changer" in the current system of legalized corruption because it encourages small donors to give money to campaigns, which makes them feel like they can make a difference.

The issue of campaign-finance reform is also a popular one. More than 80 percent of every ideological and partisan subgroup expressed agreement that, "There is way too much corporate money in politics" and supported a "systemic solution to the problem of the role of money in politics," according to a fall 2012 study published by Demos. And a December 2012 survey of 504 New Yorkers conducted by Lake Research Partners for the Public Campaign Action Fund found that close to 80 percent of them support a reform package that included the public financing of elections.

The problem, however, is that while such support is wide, it is rarely deep. Since it is an electoral-process issue, it does not frequently excite voters--and even when it does, it usually fails to excite reporters. This is ironic because the issue of campaign finance is the essence of "good government"--for which the free press exists to monitor. The editorial page of The New York Times is dedicated to raising the profile of the issue, for instance, and while that newspaper does not ignore the role of money in its news pages, it also does not always do a good job of demonstrating that this corruption costs citizens real money.

To be fair to journalists, that is not an easy task. In the first place, such stories are complicated and are rarely exciting to read. This is especially a problem in a media environment that is driven by sensationalism and suffers from severely diminished resources. Second, the power of money influences so many aspects of our lives that it can be an enormous challenge merely to conceive of, much less report on, them in an understandable manner.

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