Once again, the Citizens Election Program is being threatened with defunding and, eventually, oblivion. Republicans hate the program, which provides public funding for campaigns, even though it allows their candidates to compete at the same level as the Democratic money machine. They raise bills every session calling for it to be dismantled. Now Republicans have eliminated the CEP in their budget proposal, citing the state’s total lack of money.
Democrats have been quick to defend the program. However, Senate minority leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, ripped Democrats for their hypocritical weakening of the program in 2013.
“If the Democrats were receptive to the reforms Republicans have proposed in the past to restore the CEP’s integrity, then I wouldn’t be suggesting cutting the program now,” Fasano said in a statement. “But what we have today has been completely stripped over the years by Democrats. Under a Republican governor Democrats supported a strict program. But as soon as a Democratic governor was in play, they exploited the rules so they could maximize the distribution of money.”
He’s right. They did.
Back in 2013, Democrats loosened the program’s contribution limits and allowed high-dollar contributions to the state party, among other things. This was, they claimed, a response to the SuperPAC tsunami unleashed by the execrable Citizens United Supreme Court decision. But it looked like an end run around the rules, and it made the program that much less effective at doing what it was designed to do: keep the influence of campaign money in politics low.
It’s also strange to see Democrats stepping up to defend the program now, because back in 2015 Democratic leaders were suggesting ending the program to close the budget deficit. They eventually agreed to back off, but it’s remarkable to see some of the same people, including House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, defending the CEP now.
The CEP, then, is a shadow of its former self, seen by Democratic leadership as a prop when it helps them and an inconvenience when it doesn’t.
Is it worth keeping?
It’s hard for me to ask that question. In 2002, when I was young and idealistic, I went door-to-door for a Green Party candidate whose major platform was campaign finance reform and public financing. Back in those days the idea of the state funding campaigns was laughably fringe, so much so that only the dweebs and hippies of the Green Party supported it. But then the Rowland scandal happened, and the landmark 2005 campaign finance reform package, including public financing, was passed with bipartisan support and signed by a Republican governor.
I was ecstatic. I believed then, as I still do now, that strict controls on campaign money and equal and fair public financing are essential to protecting democracy from the corrosive influence of outside money. I’ve supported the CEP, even when Democrats watered it down, because I believed that having even a lesser version of the program was better than nothing.
The marriage of big money and politics is still one of the greatest threats to our democracy. If you have any doubts, look at the greedy fool sitting in the White House. The president’s companies and properties continue to make tons of money from presidential visits, while his family hawks investor visas in China and jets around the world to make business deals on the taxpayers’ dime.
And when we finally get to the bottom of the Russia scandal, which we absolutely will, I suspect it’s going to all be about money.
So yes, the Citizens Election Program is worth saving, with one caveat: we need to give it teeth.
The program needs reform, badly. The contribution limits and strictures that were weakened in 2013 must be put back in place, but more needs to be done. Restrictions must be put in place on what the state parties can do, and how much they can spend. Enforcement must be given real power, as well, and the ability to impose severe and lasting consequences on anyone who breaks the rules.
We should also pass laws demanding to see the tax returns of anyone running for governor, Congress, or President of the United States. There must be transparency.
Our democracy is a precious, fragile thing. Protecting it by working to keep it free of corrosive money is a civic necessity. So yes, the Citizens Election Program is worth saving — but only if we make it as strong as it needs to be to hold back the rising waters of corruption.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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