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If Congresspeople Talk about Campaign Finance Reform, Is It News?

The most serious sign of the decline of the fourth estate as an important part of self-governance is the lack of coverage for basic events.
Case in point: last night, Tuesday, March 26, 2013, Congressman John Larson, Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, and Karyn Hobert Flynn of Common Cause and Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign gathered at the Farmington Public Library to discuss campaign finance reform.
Exactly how many print journalists attended? One. Me. And I attended in my capacity as administrator of the New Haven Democracy Fund, not in my capacity as weekly columnist for the 40-Year Plan. No daily beat reporters. Nevertheless, the subject matter compels to columnize about it.
Perhaps two Congresscritters and a Connecticut constitutional officer sitting in one room to discuss important voting mechanisms is not news. But years of training as a news reporter had me thinking three high-level elected officials meeting with constituents was news.
Silly me. That was before corporate leveraged buyouts of centuries old institutions changed how citizens are supposed to learn of the mechanics of their republic.
For the one percent of the one percent of the one percent of the rich who seek to control the political debate in this country (and who created this media environment), this disengagement with news works wonders for wealth accumulation. For the rest of us 99 percent, it handicaps our ability to affect policy outcomes favorable to us.
So, then, how did I find out about this campaign finance powwow? I am on Congressman Larson’s email list. How did I get there? I ran against him? I emailed him some complaint? I’m not sure.
I learned of the event a few hours before it happened by email. This is how newsmakers get their messages out these days. The problem, though, is that newsmakers who rely on this method of communication have a self-selecting audience, and one that has to be flexible in order to attend an event like this.
According to the internetz, the Plainville Observer, the Bristol Observer and the Farmington Patch all posted something about the event a day or so beforehand, but that required me to read the Farmington Patch regularly or to even know the Plainville Observer existed.
This might be a trick question, too, because Farmington is not in the First Congressional District. It’s in the Fifth, Esty’s district.
Yes, CT-N covered it. But CT-N does not reach the same level of audience that a daily newspaper/website does. CT-N deserves props for being there. But, people like my parents do not examine CT-N with the same thoroughness that they do the daily miracle. Nor do people like me even have cable TV.
Whatever the case, I made it to the Library on time. Larson was late. He blamed traffic. But this allowed me to hobnob. In speaking with Karen Hobert Flynn, Cheri Quickmire and Kim Hynes of Common Cause, I learned that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi appointed Congressman Larson the head of the Task Force on Election Reform.
Apparently, back in November 2012, CTmirror.org reported on Larson’s departure as the head of the House Democratic caucus (the fourth most powerful post in the House Democratic leadership) and his elevation to chair of the Task Force. I missed the Mirror’s story, so I missed the news.
The Mirror’s story did not describe the Task Force’s charge, but press releases from Larson sketch out a narrative:
January 17, 2013: “Larson Joins House Members Calling for Hearing on Constitutional Remedies to Take Money Out of Politics.”
January 16, 2013: “Congressman Larson Announces Introduction of Legislation Aimed at Ridding Campaigns of Big Money Influence.”
January 3, 2013: “Congressman Larson Announces Introduction of Legislation to Help Strengthen Our Democracy.”
The substance of these press releases was what was discussed in front of 60 people at the Farmington Library. In between patting each other on the back like politicians love to do, I realized how Larson laces his soliloquys with quotes from Shakespeare and allusions to Irish geography like “It’s a long way to Tipperary.”
It’s a longer way to campaign finance reform. Larson and his blue party brethren in the people’s House have a few ideas on how to fix the problem of wealth inequality in political campaigns. In his January 3, 2013 press release, Larson outlined the vision of the Democratic caucus:
“Congressman David Price and Congressman Chris Van Hollen reintroduced the Empowering Citizens Act, Congressman John Sarbanes reintroduced the Grassroots Democracy Act, and Congressman John Yarmuth and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree reintroduced the Fair Elections Now Act.”
In short, the Empowering Citizens Act “mends the small donor matching system for presidential campaigns, with a new title creating a similar small donor matching system for congressional elections. The bill also blunts the impact of Super PACs by strengthening anti-coordination rules to prohibit candidate-specific Super PACs from operating as arms of candidate campaigns,” reads the press release.
Second, “The Grassroots Democracy Act is a three-pronged reform proposal that empowers everyday Americans with a refundable tax credit to participate in campaign giving; amplifies the impact of grassroots donations with a multiple match framework to fund campaigns of grassroots candidates; and fights back against unlimited outside spending with a People’s Fund, which provides additional financial support in races where the voices of grassroots candidates are being drowned out.”
Third, the Fair Elections Now Act presents a hybrid public campaign financing system of matching funds and grants for Congressional elections. A candidate needs to raise $50,000 in 5,000 or so small donations to get a cool million, and the candidate can continue to collect 5-to-1 matching donations.
Given that the crowd and candidates acknowledged the difficulty of getting even 60 people in a room to raise $15,000 (as Congresscritters like Esty must do every week for 100 weeks to raise the $1.5 million average cost of a congressional election), this is almost absurd.
When I ran as a Green against Larson, it took two months to raise $12,000 or so. Perhaps I would have had an easier time raising funds as a Democrat. But considering how difficult Ned Lamont had it at the beginning of his 2006 Senate campaign, I doubt it.
It’s even more absurd to listen to someone like Esty, who took thousands from corporations and institutions on her ascent to Congress, discussing the virtues of public campaign finance. She needed $3.3 million to win, according to Opensecrets.org. She said it is an arms race. But she will not unilaterally disarm. Nor will Larson.
Nyhart, who spoke with Larson at a forum like this in West Hartford some time ago, broke the problem down simply, in rough numbers. About 3.7 million people gave small donations of less than $200 nationally in the 2012 presidential political cycle to come up with some $300 million.
As a countervailing force, about 32 people each gave $10 million in 2012 to Political Action Committees, which accounts for more than $300 million in freewheeling spending, unleashed by the terrible, awful, no-good Supreme Court decision known as Citizens’ United.
Mind you, the five ultra-rabid conservative jurists on the Supreme Court are not done dismantling the barricades that prevent dark money from polluting our political system, so it could get worse before it gets better.
Nyhart and Flynn want to see a Constitutional amendment to eliminate the Citizens’ United effects. I agree.
I asked Esty and Larson about federal help for municipal public campaign financing programs like New Haven’s Democracy Fund and the potential one in Hartford. They both said Congress won’t give money unless it is for job creation.
They pitched the concept that jobs will rebuild cities which will give cities the disposable income to pay for public campaign financing. This is misguided thinking. Pay for the elections to create the rule of law that allows economies to flourish. Where the rule of law fails, corruption presides and economic imbalance results.
The discussion of a political power without contemplating the financial power imbalance and the wealth gap in America misses the point.
As with so many of my columns, we end at the main culprit: financial inequality in this country. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. We need a redistribution of wealth. How we get there, I am not sure.

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