FBI raid spurs scant political reform
In the months since the FBI raided the offices of Senator Ron Calderon, the most interesting thing that’s happened in the State Capitol is what hasn’t happened in the State Capitol.
Bashing Calderon himself has become a favorite sport of other legislators, both belittling him verbally and then stripping him of his committee assignments. But unlike broader efforts for political reform that accompanied previous corruption scandals in state and national politics in years past, there has been barely a peep from politicians of either party about the need to clean up a system that has become consumed by non-stop fundraising. It is a testament to how isolated our elected officials have become from their constituents that so few of the law-abiding members of the legislature see the need to demonstrate their interest in cleaning up the swamp in which they work.
Lawmakers “rush out to scoop up a stack of campaign contributions, and be back at the their desks before the ink on the checks has dried.”
Most of Calderon’s colleagues are smart enough to play by the rules. They know not to overtly ask for campaign contributions in exchange for legislative votes: they are careful at the meals and receptions that immediately precede and follow those votes not to verbally link their political fundraising to their government activity. But caught between the competing pressures of formulating policy for the people and soliciting money for their next campaign, enterprising legislators can schedule a fundraising event within a five-minute walk from the floor of the state Assembly or Senate, rush out to scoop up a stack of campaign contributions, and be back at their desks before the ink on the checks has dried.
Earlier this year, I proposed an absolute ban on fundraising at any time the Legislature is in session. The ban, which would apply to both legislators and statewide office-holders, would extend 72 hours past the end of every session in order to prevent either chamber from gaveling themselves in or out for a few hours or over a long weekend. Both the Senate and Assembly would be required to conclude their respective sessions before any fundraising would be permitted.
I believe that the reality of human nature suggests that a check written several months before or after a key legislative vote would weigh less heavily in the minds of all concerned than that same check written the night before or the morning of that same vote.
The spectacle of our elected representatives scurrying around Sacramento to an ongoing cornucopia of fundraising breakfast, lunches and dinners squeezed in between floor debates and committee hearings sends an unfortunate and often inaccurate message to voters that public policy is only the second highest priority for their elected representatives. Fundraising is a necessary part of politics. But governing is too. And you shouldn’t be able do both at the same time. First things first.
One area of disagreement is whether a ban on fundraising during legislative session would reduce the amount of money contributed to state campaigns. I believe that the reality of human nature suggests that a check written several months before or after a key legislative vote would weigh less heavily in the minds of all concerned than that same check written the night before or the morning of that same vote. As importantly, the appearance of corruption would be reduced. And arguably, the amount of time that a legislator or statewide officeholder would have to devote to his or her official responsibilities would increase dramatically if he or she no longer had to set aside large blocs of time every day for fundraising calls, receptions and other legalized shakedowns.
So let’s start with 24 hour disclosure: on that we can all agree. But we should then move on to steps that make sure that our elected officials can concentrate on the job we elected them to do…
But where there is complete agreement is the need for instant reporting and disclosure of all political contributions. During my time as chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, I learned that the technology required for such a system was both available and affordable. Earlier this year, Assembly Speaker John Perez commendably spearheaded an effort to provide the Secretary of State’s office with the funds needed to upgrade its computer system for the purposes of eliminating the embarrassing backlog and delays in processing new business applications, an effort which I strongly support. But perhaps we can also agree that the state’s voters deserve the same consideration. Then, Californians will be able to access information regarding their representatives’ fundraising habits in real time.
So let’s start with 24 hour disclosure: on that we can all agree. But we should then move on to steps that make sure that our elected officials can concentrate on the job we elected them to do, without the constant distractions and obstacles that a never-ending chase for campaign cash forces on them.
It now appears likely that a version of the fundraising ban will be introduced next month in the State Senate. But the history of legislatures reforming their own practices is not a particularly reassuring one. What’s needed are for politicians of both parties to decide that the inconvenience of an abbreviated fundraising schedule is a worthwhile trade-off in exchange for enhanced voter confidence in their elected representatives.
The allegations against Calderon cast a shadow over the work of legislators of both parties who would never dream of trading money for votes. The best way for them to remove that shadow is to demonstrate to the people of California that they understand that doing their current job should come before raising money for their next one.
Ed’s Note: “Dan Schnur is the Director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and the former chairman of the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission. He is considering a campaign for California Secretary of State as an independent No Party Preference candidate.
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