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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
Voices / Viewpoint

The root of our problems

When the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated Vermont’s campaign finance law, we lost the people’s voice to the interests of big money, and it still affects us all

ARLENE DISTLER is a founder and serves as a board member of Write Action, a community of writers in Brattleboro.


There’s a reason the renowned, politically savvy economist and fellow Vermonter, the late John Kenneth Galbraith, cited campaign finance reform as the most urgent issue of our time. It is the root. It has an impact on everything else.

In our current debt-ceiling debate, with Republicans unwilling to raise taxes on the wealthy and Democrats barely holding the line on Medicare and Social Security, we are seeing clearly the outcome of big money’s grip on the electoral process. We are paying the piper, and the tune is not pretty.

For decades, the influence of big-money interests in campaigns has increased, despite a movement that galvanized reform in the 1990s. Chief Justice John Roberts’ Supreme Court is doing its best to undo or weaken those reforms, ruling three times in the past four years against reformist bills and ignoring decades of precedent, culminating with the Citizens United case that went before the Supreme Court last year.

The conservative Republican-dominated court basically cemented the influence of corporations and political action committees in elections, striking down previous limits on donations and electioneering activity.

Justice John Paul Stevens offered a 90-page dissenting opinion, in which he said:

“At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.

“It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”

* * *

Marty Jezer, my partner for 12 years, known locally for his Reformer columns, considered campaign finance reform the most important work of his life. From the early ’90s until his death in 2005, he served as part of the Working Group For Electoral Democracy.

This group was described in a 1997 American Prospect article as “an informal association of longtime public policy activists from various parts of the country.” It included Randy Kehler, one of the founders of the nuclear freeze movement and a well-known tax resister; Gwen Patton, a veteran of the civil rights movement from Montgomery, Ala.; Janice Fine, founder of Northeast Action; Ben Senturia, a Missouri activist on environmental and voting rights issues; and Nick Nyhart, now CEO of the nonprofit Public Campaign.

The Working Group crafted a model bill that would limit donations to candidates, cap what can be spent, and create a blueprint for “democratically financed elections.” The Clean Money Option, as it came to be called, includes limits on contributions for those running in state races, and a voluntary mechanism for public funding of campaigns.

Under the Clean Money Option, candidates would get matching funds from the state, dollar for dollar, if a privately funded candidate outspent the publicly funded candidate

The Clean Money Option became law in Maine in 1996. The following June, Vermont became the first state to pass a bill modeled after the Maine law.

Both laws served as models for the clean election initiatives passed by Arizona and Massachusetts voters in November, 1998. (The Massachusetts law, however, was repealed by the legislature in 2003.) Connecticut’s legislature passed a clean elections bill in 2005.

In 2006, in a case brought by a group of Republicans (with the misguided help of — of all groups! — the American Civil Liberties Union), a conservative Supreme Court struck down Vermont’s Act 64, in Landell et al vs. Sorrell, on the basis of its impeding free speech.

The court held that the contribution limits and spending caps were too low and therefore impeded free speech. Jezer acknowledged this “flaw” –– allowable amounts being too low and not adjustable for inflation –– in a 2002 article in the Progressive Populist.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that the bill should stand, as its overall impact was positive––that it would do more to encourage fair debate than limit it.

The court ruled likewise on Arizona’s version of the bill this past year. The Court deemed it unconstitutional on the grounds that a funding mechanism like that in the Clean Money Option inhibits free speech. The split was as it has been for all the voting bill challenges that had come before the court in the past few years: 4–3, along liberal-conservative lines.

Representing the three minority opinions was Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote in a scathing dissent that “matching funds provide a ‘viewpoint neutral’ subsidy to political candidates and fosters more speech not less.”

She continued that anyone “familiar with our country’s core values — our devotion to democratic self-governance,” and to a robust political debate, “might expect this court to celebrate, or at least not interfere with” a public financing system.

It was the landmark Buckley vs. Valeo case in 1974 that equated campaign spending with free speech. This concept has been a real boondoggle for attempts to get big money out of elections.

Ellen Miller, founder and executive director of both the Sunshine Institute, which is committed to government transparency, and The Center for Responsive Politics, has stated, “The voices of those who cannot or do not give [to campaigns] are muted by the vested campaign contributors.”

This so-called “free speech” allows the self-interest of big money to effectively drown out the legitimate concerns of a majority of the citizenry.

As the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us has grown, the divergence of who benefits from government has now reached an all-time high.

This gap has become a precipitous crevice.

As I write, the current debt-ceiling and budgetary stand-off has shown the current state of politics for what it is — in thrall to big money. The concern of legislators for the general good is about to take a swan dive off the precipice of this crevice.

* * *

So, where are we Vermonters now?

After the Supreme Court struck down Vermont’s campaign finance law in 2006, contribution limits have reverted to pre-1997 levels.

Over the past six years, the Senate, from which all such legislation must emerge, attempted to write a new campaign finance law, at first vetoed by Governor Douglas. The Senate overrode the veto, but the House missed the override by one vote. On the second try, the legislation passed the Senate but languished in the House.

This past year, State Senator Peter Galbraith (D-Windham) sponsored an amendment to a new campaign finance bill, which would have banned corporate contributions to candidates. It did not get out of committee.

Many months after the legislative session, Galbraith is still clearly frustrated and disappointed. While it was argued that corporations do not figure importantly in Vermont campaigns, according to Galbraith some candidates receive fully 10 percent of their campaign funds from a single given corporation.

And according to Galbraith, corporations in Vermont attempt to buy access, just as elsewhere.

But for Senator Jeanette White, the issue is transparency.

“In my mind, the biggest issue with campaign finance is the reporting/identification,” White explained in an e-mail. “The limits are important, and I would like to make sure we have better limits than we have now — I believe it is $2,000 for any office from a single source. And for candidates and Political Action Committees all of those donations have to be reported and identified as to the donor.

“The problem is not with the campaigns themselves but with what is called independent expenditures. The Supreme Court has ruled that corporations can spend as much as they want — money equals speech.

“What I want to do is make sure that those expenditures are reported and that the entity paying for it is identified. So that is where I intend to head next year.”

* * *

When my last article, about the Middle East, appeared in The Commons [“Spring awakening” March 16], some people who were fans of Jezer’s work said, “You must have been channeling Marty.”

Well, no, Marty and I often worked together; I was his in-house editor and he mine. But working on this piece, about campaign finance reform, which was so much his issue, I sometimes wished I could channel him.

So, it was with particular delight that while doing Internet research I found an article that answered a bunch of my questions — and then discovered it was written by Marty!

And so, I am going to end with these words from that article, from Progressive Populist, which says so well why we should all care a lot about this issue:

“Campaign finance reform is not just another issue,” Marty Jezer wrote. “It’s a process issue, a democratic reform that makes other reforms possible. As long as candidates are enabled to take special-interest money, the make-up of government will continue to be tilted towards politicians who know how to raise money but aren’t necessarily good legislators.

“And the legislative agenda will reflect the agenda of those who give the money. The great majority of people who can’t afford to ply their legislators with gifts of money will forever be shortchanged when it comes to the fine-print of legislative directives.”

Whatever happens on Aug. 2, it sure would be nice to see these don’t-raise-taxes for-the-wealthy legislators try to get re-elected without their big-money cronies.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #112 (Wednesday, August 3, 2011).

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