Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne is onto something. He asserts that "we have reached a true populist moment in American politics."
The U.S. Supreme Court majority sniffed last week that the lure of campaign cash has nothing to do with the likelihood of public corruption or undue influence on our institutions and public officials. It's just that corporations have the right to free speech (even without a mention of them in the constitution). And if the result is a torrent of corporate dollars contaminating the political process, which doesn't exactly pass the sniff test as it is, we can all pay homage to the glories of the first amendment.
Maybe the Supremes missed the health care reform stalemate in Congress. Health insurers and HMOs spent nationally more than $126 million in the first half of 2009 alone on campaign contributions and lobbying to fight health care reform. That's a clip of nearly $700,000 per day.
And they undoubtedly glanced over Pennsylvania's recent state budget fiasco. Last year the interests that blocked adequate revenue from reaching the state's coffers were many, but they all had one thing in common: big bucks "invested" politically. Want to tax the natural gas extracted from the Marcellus Shale? You say it's a no-brainer from a policy perspective. Sorry. Governor Rendell backed away and the legislature ran for cover – maybe next year. The gas industry recently showered state senate leaders with more than $200,000 in campaign contributions and the governor was rewarded, too (all before the fact) .
Disgusted? Let's get the ball rolling on campaign finance reform in PA. Click here
to sign a citizens' petition to help get this issue some visibility in our state.
What about taxes on cigars and smokeless tobacco? "Sin" taxes make sound policy, especially involving smoking, which pushes up the cost of health care for everyone. No cigar, not in PA. So what if we’re the only state that doesn’t tax cigars and smokeless tobacco? The tobacco industry donated more than $415,000 to political candidates and their committees in 2008. (Smoke-filled rooms aren’t for nothing.) Heard enough? Click here
Why not sensibly expand the sales tax to high-end business services like legal, accounting, engineering and consulting, perhaps with a dollar-value floor for applying the tax? (It beats taxing the struggling arts community.) No, that’s not going to work either, once you consider that powerful law firms across the Commonwealth have huge influence and are not shy about distributing largesse in the right places. In fact, since firms in these industries are generally partnerships, they even avoid the ban on corporate contributions and can make donations directly through their businesses. “Pinstripe patronage” may grease the wheels of government, but it generally drives them in the wrong direction.
And then there’s the casino industry, whose generosity with political gifts is boundless. Gaming impresarios and their friends have dispersed some $17 million to PA politicians since 1991, according to a recent study
by Common Cause PA. And what do they get in return? A new market in Pennsylvania
- so what if it required overriding local government authority - and a chance to make their bid to operate casinos and make profits so huge that they’re positively thrilled to pay taxes. Plus, their latest jackpot includes the approval of table games, getting a helping hand for those downtrodden developers of Foxwoods who need some more time and other goodies. Giving and receiving – they go hand in hand in Pennsylvania
Well, could this be a genuine turning point like the one many thought we had a year ago last January 20? Maybe a paradigm switch to hard reality and common sense. A populist moment? Only if we're serious about strengthening the voices of citizens, not corporations or the usual insiders. It's not going to be easy to pass meaningful campaign finance reform in Pennsylvania, but experienced advocates believe we have a unique window to get it done this session. And now with the provocation from the extremists on the U.S. Supreme Court, this seems an increasingly doable proposition. Plus, there's an opportunity for serious movement on the national level.
Pennsylvania is one of only eleven states without contribution limits and there is a growing realization that our politics (see above) is substantially a product of our "wild West"/anything goes approach to campaign financing. At least four bills now in the legislature attempt to address the issue. But by far the best at this point was introduced in the House last summer by Rep. David Levdansky (D-Allegheny/Washington). It would institute tough but reasonable donation limits, close loopholes in the prohibition against corporate treasury funds to candidates and strengthen reporting requirements that together will change the dynamic across the Commonwealth’s political landscape. Whatever is ultimately passed probably will be an amalgam of those bills, and there is talk of the various bill sponsors (Reps. Levdansky, Josh Shapiro (D-Montco), Mike Gerber (D-Montco), and Babette Josephs (D-Phil.) coming together to iron out a way forward. Click here
to learn more about the Levdansky bill and start making your voice heard. We'll present the petitions in Harrisburg at the right moment.
Not convinced? Try taking a corporation out for lunch for a heart-to-heart.
Next up: a look at the specifics of campaign financing bills now in Harrisburg.