06/26/2006 12:27 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Supreme Court (and the Pols) v. Voters First

I've spent more than a decade pursuing "Clean Elections" full public financing as a key policy to empower citizens at the grassroots and combat big money political corruption. This morning's narrowly drawn decision overturning Vermont's political campaign spending and contribution limits puts the Roberts court on the wrong side of voters when it comes to leveling the playing field in our country's elections. Fortunately, the Court's decision leaves public financing systems like the ones in Maine and Arizona as the prime options to amplify the voters' voice against big money's din.

The biggest obstacle to the spread of these systems hasn't been the courts. Rather, it's incumbent politicians who have been reluctant to change the rules by which they've been elected. But Tom DeLay, Duke Cunningham, William Jefferson and their fellow DC scandalistas may have changed all that. The attention they have drawn to corruption as usual in Washington has the public in a mood for retribution. Last week, four national reform groups laid down a challenge to Congress and Congressional candidates across the country: show us you are serious about changing the way Washington does business by agreeing to a "Voters First" pledge to support a "Clean Elections" system of full public financing as well as a crackdown on lobbyist gifts to members and increased transparency for lobbyist fundraising activities on behalf on federal lawmakers.

Like you, I've seen the opinion surveys indicating that the party out of power right now has a public opinion advantage over the party currently in power, but that misses a larger fact. Americans care more about putting voters in charge than whether a red or blue politician holds office.

The four reform groups pursuing the Voters First pledge (Common Cause, Public Campaign Action Fund, Public Citizen, and USPIRG) polled recently and queried voters on how a candidate's stand on the groups' comprehensive reform package would affect their Election Day decision. The results were startling and should give pause to inside the Beltway politicians for whom a lobbyist-funded incumbency has been a reliable safe haven. In the poll, a 16 point deficit for a generic Republican candidate reverses to a ten point advantage if the GOP candidate endorses the Voters First pledge and the Democrat refuses. If a Democrat signs the pledge and the Republican refuses, the Democrat's lead increases by 13%.

The public wants a political system that works for them and not a system geared to the needs of sitting legislators and their campaign benefactors. Public campaign financing, serious restrictions on privately-funded lifestyle perks for lawmakers, and internet disclosure of lobbyist fundraising on our behalf of our Senators and Representatives would seriously ramp up citizen clout within the political process. The "Clean Elections" systems at work in Maine, Arizona, five other states, and two cities open up the politics, give voters more choices, and provide a level playing field for grassroots-backed candidates who lack access to networks of wealthy contributors.

So far, of course, there's been little movement inside the beltway to enact such these changes. But this summer and fall, as members of Congress reach out to their constituents, they'll have a choice. They can stand pat with the Jack Abramoff system of legislating under the influence or they can put the voters first and support grassroots oriented political reform. Ready to make a difference yourself? Attend a houseparty Tuesday night, June 27!