As the debate about Connecticut’s fiscal crisis rages and partisan barbs are being thrown across the political spectrum, for many there was a brief moment of common ground during the Governor’s state of the state speech when urged lawmakers to “act quickly to fix and preserve the public financing law that so many of us championed and that takes special interest money out of campaigns.”
The line brought genuine applause from people inside and outside the State Capitol.
Connecticut’s landmark campaign finance reform program is hanging by a thread. Within days, weeks, or months, this landmark initiative might be relegated to a historical footnote about Connecticut’s effort to return government to the people.
Supporters have consistently touted Connecticut’s reform law as the best of its kind in the nation and proof that it is possible to set up a competitive electoral system in which candidates can win without resorting to raising funds from lobbyists, state contractors, businesses, unions, and other special interests.
On the other hand, opponents, now bolstered by the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down vital elements of our federal campaign finance system, have claimed that while Connecticut’s new law may be an interesting academic exercise, it is unconstitutional.
The future of Connecticut’s historic reform rests in hands of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, although some hold onto the belief that the state legislature can and must fix the law so that the most vital elements of it can be maintained even if the Court moves to void some of its provisions.
With the governor and key legislators calling for immediate action to maintain Connecticut’s campaign finance law, it remains unclear whether such action will take place.
Which begs the question – why?
To be fair, the legal issues surrounding the law are complex and simple solutions are hard to find. That said, others are happy to sit back and let the new system slide slowly over the cliff. In the end, perhaps we should call it the “Brer Rabbit” phenomenon, because while many legislators truly support the program, it seems that there are some who “support” it with faint praise, biding their time until the moment they can quietly support the law’s demise.
Rather than publicly oppose the law, they have taken the old folktale to heart and adopted its most important message.
For those who aren’t fully aware of the tale, Brer Rabbit finds himself stuck and he must face his doom at the hands of Brer Fox. But Brer Fox announces that he is torn between roasting or hanging Brer Rabbit. The rabbit, being an especially skilled strategist, tactician, and operator responds by telling Fox that while he doesn’t mind being roasted or hanged, he hopes that Fox won’t “throw him into the briar patch”. Of course, this news prompts Fox to do exactly that. As we then learn, rabbits are very much at home in briar patches, and the resourceful rabbit not only escapes but calls out his thanks to the fox and “skips away as merry as a cricket” while the fox grinds his teeth in rage and goes home.
So, back here in Connecticut, despite the bipartisan call for action, the law remains unfixed.
Before we decide that briars aren’t really so bad, let us remember what the old system was really like.
During the 2006 election cycle, legislative leadership committees raised more than $1.97 million in caucus PAC money to help support their legislative candidates. Of that amount, about $1.59 million, or about 80 percent, came from lobbyists, lobbyist-related PACs, or from those infamous ad books.
The Senate Democratic Campaign Committee raised 78 percent of its funds from PACs, lobbyists, and ad books, while the House Democratic Campaign Committee collected 85 percent of its funds from these sources. The Senate Republican Campaign Committee eclipsed both Democratic caucuses, getting 91 percent of its money from lobbyists, PACs, and ads, while more than $7 out of every $10 the House Republicans raised came from these same sources.
Adding insult to injury, in the years leading up to the adoption of campaign reform, legislative leaders began setting up multiple ongoing political committees so that they could further maximize the amount of money raised from lobbyists and lobbyist-related PACs. In this way, leaders were able to solicit multiple donations from a single entity, raising amounts significantly above what could otherwise be legally donated if the leaders had only one committee.
For example, in 2006, AT&T provided PACs associated with the House Democratic Caucus with a total of eight contributions totaling over $8,350. During the same campaign cycle, AT&T provided the House Republican related PACs with two donations totaling $3,000.
The obscene reliance on lobbyists, PACs, and ad books was as ubiquitous for individual legislative races as it was for the caucuses. The pattern was especially true for incumbents. This campaign finance system, along with politically driven redistricting, ensured that there were fewer and fewer competitive legislative races each year.
Lobbyists already have a profound impact on public policy making even if they are prohibited from raising and giving campaign funds to candidates. One might even say that with financial handouts no longer legal, lobbyists have been forced to spend more time actually educating and persuading legislators and policymakers that their arguments have merit, rather than relying on the generosity of their campaign donations to win over legislative supporters.
Shifting to a system of public campaign financing and removing lobbyist and PAC money from campaigns is a major step forward in reforming the way Connecticut’s public policy making process works. Removing the connection between legislative action and campaign donations helps to create an environment in which elected officials can more easily weigh policy choices based on actual merit, rather than how that decision will impact one’s ability to raise campaign funds inside the building.
Does campaign finance reform automatically produce good policy? Certainly not. But considering the extraordinary challenges facing our state, we need all the help we can get.
With all that said, what stands in the way of immediate action to fix Connecticut’s campaign finance law? Maybe we should ask Brer Rabbit that one.
Jonathan Pelto served as a member of the House of Representatives from 1984-1993. He was Deputy Majority Leader and member of the Appropriations Committees during the income tax debate of 1991. He presently works as a strategic communications consultant.