By Arianna Huffington
November 15, 1999
You don't have to be in favor of campaign finance reform to be outraged by what the Massachusetts legislature has tried to pull: eviscerating the state's Clean Elections law, even though that means blatantly thwarting the will of the people who voted for it by 2-to-1. It's an act of political defiance that only highlights the desperate need for reform.
A little history: after lawmakers repeatedly failed to approve campaign finance reform, activists took their case directly to the people. A ballot initiative last November sought to shrink the influence of special interests by banning soft money and providing public financing for candidates who agree to limit their campaign spending. The initiative's overwhelming victory at the polls seemed to be democracy in action.
But it turned out to be democracy denied. Voters in Massachusetts can enact laws via the ballot box but can't appropriate the money to fund them, so incumbents set out to nullify the public's vote. After initially vowing to accede to the electorate's wishes -- "The voters have approved it, so I will be funding it" -- Republican Gov. Paul Cellucci turned around and a mere 10 weeks later filed a budget that contained none of the money needed to implement the program.
But, of course, there is a system of checks and balances. So just in case the governor didn't kill the public's will, the Democrat-controlled State Legislature took a few whacks. In a move reminiscent of the playground cheater who cries "Do over!" any time things don't go his way, the state House agreed to fund the measure but only after tacking on an amendment that would require voters to re-approve the same initiative they had so resoundingly endorsed. Just trying to make sure the people knew what they were doing, I suppose.
The ensuing uproar by activists and opinion-makers ensured that that turkey didn't fly. Undaunted, last week the legislature carved a gaping loophole into the Clean Elections law by allowing incumbents to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money and still qualify for public funding in the last few months of their campaign. In effect, they could have their special-interest cake and eat it with a silver taxpayer-funded spoon.
State Senate President Thomas Birmingham, who originally hailed the new law as "an idea whose time has come," defended its evisceration by claiming that office-holders require more money than the new law would allow for "expenses that are expected of them and sometimes needed." But a study released last week revealed that the majority of such spending was related to solidifying incumbency -- fund-raising, gift-giving, hospitality, travel, even pricey golf tournaments and lavish cocktail parties.
Have our politicians become so confident in how they've stacked the deck in their favor -- 98.5 percent of U.S. House incumbents were reelected in 1998 -- that they don't even worry about how breathtakingly brazen they look? It's as if they're taunting us: "Yeah, we're making a mockery out of the democratic process -- what are ya gonna do about it?"
The fate of the Clean Elections law is now back in the hands of the governor, who decided on Monday to veto the massive loophole -- but also the $10 million that the legislature had appropriated. "The legislature can't have it both ways," he told me. "They can't have both special-interest money and public funding. At the same time, it is not clear in the bill how the funding for district offices would be raised."
David Donnelly, executive director of Mass Voters for Clean Elections, believes that "it would, in fact, be very easy to raise the small amount of money needed for district offices in a segregated account." It's clear that this was just one more excuse to try to void the people's verdict.
Instead of funding the law, the governor has decided to fund a "study of how the Clean Elections law will be implemented." Maybe while they're at it they can also study what a majority vote means in a democracy. It's no wonder voter turnout in Massachusetts last year fell to its lowest point since the early 1800s.
History teaches us that reformers rarely succeed in their lifetimes. What makes the Massachusetts developments particularly depressing is that the leaders of this reform movement are so young. Donnelly is only 30, and when I talked to him he was busy planning a "Stand by the Voters" rally at the Massachusetts Statehouse. But it was hard to miss his disillusionment: "One of the dangers with all this is that we lose idealism, that everyone becomes so cynical," he says. "It's worse than a roller coaster; it's one of those freaky scare rides at the carnival." ("Step right up to the Cornucopia of Corruption, folks! See democracy thwarted! See the will of the people denied!")
At the moment, the reform impulse is being undercut at every level. "It's all such a mess," said a Clean Elections volunteer from Lexington. "We can no longer keep saying that it's just a matter of good people caught in a bad system. Maybe we should just throw them all out and start over."
Indeed when political elites cling to power even at the expense of the people's expressed will, perhaps it is time to take a lesson from the revolutionaries who founded this country and, in the spirit of that other Massachusetts reform, the Boston Tea Party, toss them all overboard.Update: On Tuesday, November 16, Gov. Paul Cellucci changed his mind and decided not to veto the $10 million earmarked to implement the Massachusetts Clean Elections law. This is a huge victory for those who favor reform, and a great tribute both to the governor, who proved himself willing to listen and consider others' points of view, and to the Clean Elections movement's tenacity in bringing this issue to the public's attention.
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