By Dan Schnur
Special to Calbuzz
If you operate under the premise that it’s better to be one mile outside of Hell heading out than one hundred miles away heading in, then the state legislature’s current approval rating — 30 percent in the most recent USC Dornsife/LA Times poll — is good.
Only three years ago, a mere nine percent Californians approved of the job their legislators were doing, so things seem to be heading in the right direction. But at least for the sake of argument, let’s assume there is further potential for growth.
Voters here in California and across the country have repeatedly raised two overriding frustrations with their political leaders: they believe that the process has become hyper-partisan and overly polarized, and they think politicians are for sale to their biggest campaign contributors.
Smart candidates ranging from Barack Obama to Arnold Schwarzenegger have addressed this distrust in their campaigns for office, promising voters that they would devote themselves to cleaning up a political culture that is widely viewed as corrupt and breaking the partisan gridlock that prevents meaningful progress on necessary policy challenges. Both railed against the influence of unconstrained fundraising and promised to break the bond between political contributions and government action.
But while both Obama and Schwarzenegger deserve credit for their efforts, it would be difficult to argue that either Sacramento or Washington is less partisan or less beholden to special interest money than when they were first elected. The question then becomes what can be done to fix a system that has become increasingly dysfunctional.
A Modest Proposal Earlier this week, I proposed an absolute ban on fundraising at any time the legislature is in session. The ban, which would apply to both legislators and statewide office-holders, would extend 72 hours past the end of every session in order to prevent either chamber from gaveling themselves in or out for a few hours or over a long weekend. Both the Senate and Assembly would be required to conclude their respective sessions before any fundraising would be permitted.
Under the current rules, enterprising legislators can schedule a fundraising reception within a five-minute walk from the floor of the state Assembly or Senate, rush out to scoop up a stack of campaign contributions, and be back at their desks before the ink on the checks has dried. That has to stop.
If you think that there is nothing unseemly about our elected officials simultaneously raising money for their re-election campaigns while making policy decisions on legislation that will benefit their donors, then this proposal is not likely to impress you. Similarly, if you believe that there is not nearly enough money in politics, and are confident that our state government is already operating at maximum efficiency, then reading this article is probably not a good use of your time.
But if you are open to the idea that the legislative process would benefit from legislators whose primary focus was on legislating, and if you believe, as I do, that creating some separation between political giving and government action, would improve a system in desperate need of improvement, then I hope you’ll forge on and decide that this proposal can represent a step toward restoring sanity to the never-ending fundraising frenzy that dominates state politics.
Govern First Fundraising is a necessary part of politics. Legislating is a necessary part of governing. But you can’t do both at the same time. First things first.
Over the last several days, the proposal has attracted a wide range of supporters. But critics have emerged as well, most of whom are political operatives who benefit from the system as it currently exists. Their job is to survey the landscape, understand the rules, and then devise a strategy that allows their candidate or client to win under those rules. For a long time, I filled a similar role. But some years ago, I decided that the best path for me was no longer as a partisan warrior trying to win under the existing rules, but to try to find ways to improve the political process by making our elections fairer, our government more effective, and gaving our elected officials the greatest opportunity possible to do the job they were elected to do.
As a result, I have participated in efforts to reform the state’s redistricting process to create more competitive legislative and congressional districts, I supported the passage of a top-two primary that encourages candidates to be responsive to voters other than those representing the ideological base of their own party, and I worked to pass a ballot initiative that improved the state’s term limits law, preserving the diversity that have come with term limits while creating some continuity and stability in the state Capitol. As the Sacramento Bee reported this week, I decided two years ago to change my party registration from Republican to No Party Preference so my work could be viewed in a non-partisan manner.
My current role is no better or worse than the current generation of professional politicos: it’s just a different one. So when they criticize a proposal that would allow their clients to continue to raise money to their hearts’ content, but would require them to refrain until they had completed the legislative session before doing so, their reaction to a fundraising ban is completely understandable. They are protecting the interests of his clients, who would expect no less. Nor would I.
Some People Object One area of disagreement is whether a ban on fundraising during legislative session would reduce the amount of money contributed to state campaigns. I believe that the reality of human nature suggests that a check written several months before or after a key legislative vote would weigh less heavily in the minds of all concerned. At the very least, the appearance of corruption would be reduced. And inarguably, the amount of time that a legislator or statewide officeholder would have to devote to his or her official responsibilities would increase dramatically if he or she no longer had to set aside large blocs of time every day for fundraising calls, receptions and other legalized shakedowns.
But one area where there is complete agreement is the need for instant reporting and disclosure of all political contributions. During my time as chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, I learned that the technology required for such a system was both available and affordable. Earlier this month, Assembly Speaker John Perez, commendably spearheaded an effort to provide the Secretary of State’s office with the funds needed to upgrade its computer system for the purposes of eliminating the embarrassing backlog and delays in processing new business applications.
Speaker Perez deserves enormous credit for the work he has done to improve access and service for California’s small business owners. His advisor, Steve Maviglio, has been one of the strongest critics of the proposed fundraising ban. Maybe Steve can convince his boss that the state’s voters deserve the same consideration. Then, Californians will be able to access information regarding their representatives’ fundraising habits in real time.
So let’s start with disclosure: on that we can all agree. But then let’s move on to make sure that our elected officials can concentrate on the job we elected them to do, without the constant distractions and obstacles that a never-ending chase for campaign cash forces on them.
Dan Schnur is the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics and the former chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission. Follow him on Twitter at @danschnur