Iowa legislature pretends to care about money in politics

On March 18 the Iowa House voted 96 to 0 to pass a bill banning candidates from using campaign funds to pay themselves or immediate family members a salary. This measure closes the so-called “Ed Fallon loophole,” named because Fallon received $13,750 from his gubernatorial campaign between June and November 2006 after losing the Democratic primary.

The Iowa Senate approved Senate File 50 in February (also unanimously). Governor Chet Culver is expected to sign the bill and may have done so already, but I did not find confirmation of that on the governor’s website.

Looking at the text of Senate File 50, I noticed that it defines “immediate family member” as “the spouse or dependent child of a candidate.”

I’ve been told that at least 20 members of the Iowa House (including Democrats and Republicans) employ either their spouse or child as a clerk. Apparently it is fine for spouses and children of state legislators to draw a salary from taxpayer dollars, but it becomes a terrible ethical problem for a candidate to draw a salary from money voluntarily contributed by supporters.

I have more to say about this farcical bill after the jump.

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Department of lousy optics

When Governor Chet Culver scheduled a $5,000 a head fundraiser in Des Moines, he probably didn’t expect the event to fall on the same day he announced about $100 million in “painful” budget cuts.

Trust me, Bleeding Heartland’s resident troll won’t be the only one to use this convergence to push Republican talking points about Democrats no longer being the party of working people.

Last week Iowa legislative leaders appeared at a forum organized by Iowa Politics, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy characterized the Voter-Owned Iowa Clean Elections bill as “flat-out bad”:

It would cause taxpayer money to rain down in districts where candidates typically spend far less on campaigns, and would cause corporations to control the parties, he said. Meaningful reform should come from federal lawmakers clamping down on political committees such as 501(c)4 groups that can raise unlimited money and use it to influence campaigns, he said.

Sure, because it doesn’t look “flat-out bad” for Democrats to schedule high-priced fundraisers while most families are tightening their belts.

Of course, the real problem with our current system of funding politicians isn’t the lousy optics, it’s how narrow interests are able to push through bad bills or block legislation that is in the public interest and has broad bipartisan support.

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement gave a few other reasons why McCarthy is “flat-out wrong”:

McCarthy also claimed that under VOICE, corporations would “control the parties” through their contributions. Currently, corporate contributions to candidates are prohibited in Iowa, and would remain banned under VOICE. However, Iowa is one of only 13 states that have no limit on what any one individual can contribute to a candidate for public office.

In fact, McCarthy took a total of $90,000 in contributions from five individuals from out of state in 2008, and all the reports aren’t even in yet. And, $351,815 of his $652,205 came directly from Political Action Committees (PACs) representing special interests. States that have systems for publicly financed elections similar to VOICE, like Arizona, Maine, and Connecticut, have not seen an influx in 527 or PAC activity trying to influence elections. Rather, more candidates are running for office, including women and minorities. And, although these kinds of groups are already here in Iowa, CCI and other organizations last year worked for and passed legislation to force 527s to report their in-state activities. This has allowed the public to see who is contributing to organizations that try to influence our public elections.

McCarthy also claimed that VOICE would cause candidates to become lazy, “Which is absurd,” said CCI member Alice Bryan of Des Moines. “VOICE candidates will actually have to work harder, going door to door meeting constituents, rather than dialing for dollars and relying on slick mailers and TV ads. A VOICE candidate who agrees to limit their spending would truly represent their constituents, not the special interests that fund campaigns.”

Public Campaign has created an online petition you can sign if you want to tell McCarthy that “VOICE would make elections in Iowa about voters and not campaign donors.”

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement has scheduled a Rally and Lobby Day for January 27, 2009,

to kick off the legislative session and push for VOICE, local control of factory farms, keeping families in their homes and protecting the rights of all workers.

If you care about this issue, mark your calendar.

UPDATE: Ed Fallon published an op-ed piece in Friday’s Des Moines Register called Illinois seat not only thing that’s for sale:

Blagojevich is a menace and needs to go to the gated community where other Illinois governors before him have gone. But America’s campaign-finance system is a far greater menace to democracy. If we can muster shock and disgust for Blagojevich, we should be utterly appalled at the pervasive role of money in politics.

Face it. What we call “elections” have become auctions. The auctioning of U.S. Senate seats occurs every six years – every two years for congressional and state legislative seats. Big donors, corporations and special interests “bid” on the candidate of their choice. In close races, the smart money bids on both candidates, and the one backed by the highest bidders usually wins.

We don’t want to believe our elected officials can be bought. But as someone who served for 14 years in the Iowa House, I say with confidence that what big money wants, big money usually gets. Rank-and-file lawmakers may be well-intentioned but often are strong-armed by legislative leaders beholden to corporate donors and special interests. As a result, the most pressing challenges of our time – climate change, budgetary reform, health care, farm policy, to name a few – see practically no progress year after year.

So, while I hope the good people of Illinois fire Blagojevich and fire him soon, I have a more pressing hope that Americans across the country get fired up for campaign-finance reform. In Iowa, Senator-elect Pam Jochum is leading the charge on VOICE (Voter-Owned Iowa Clean Elections). This bill would make it easier for rank-and-file lawmakers to stand up to party leaders, allow more citizens to run for office and give the public far greater access to the halls of power.

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A contest Iowa has no hope of winning

At Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall just opened nominations for the second annual “Golden Duke Awards,” “given out for excellence in corrupt acts, betrayals of the public trust and generalized shameful behavior.” You have until December 17 to submit nominations in the following categories:

Sleaziest Campaign Ad

Best Election Season Fib

Outstanding Achievement in Corruption-based Chutzpah

Best Scandal — Sex and Generalized Carnality

Best Scandal — Local Venue

Best Scandal — General Interest

Click here to view last year’s Golden Duke winners.

Talking Points Memo also has launched a contest to determine the most corrupt state. Reader WO named the short list:

I think it’s pretty clear that the only three serious contenders are Illinois, Louisiana, and Alaska. My money would be on the young upstart, Alaska, over the grizzled corruption veterans of Illinois and Louisiana, but who knows. Statistics should play a part in the contest, but style points are important, too. Cash in the freezer is pretty impressive, as is trying to shake down the President-Elect.

One of Marshall’s readers in New Orleans argues here that Louisiana is the “all time champ”.

A reader in Arizona explains why that state should be a finalist.

Another reader makes the case for Nevada.

Marshall also received a bunch of e-mails nominating New York, New Jersey or Rhode Island. He explained here why those states are not in the same league as Illinois, Louisiana or Alaska:

I know there are a lot of hurt feelings out there. A lot of people feel slighted on behalf of their states. But while a number of these states have impressive histories of corruption, as I told a few emailers, a lot of it really comes down to a case of ‘what have you done for me lately?’ […]

Sure, there’s plenty of crooks in New York and New Jersey and Rhode Island. And Massachusetts has its moment. But I’m just not sure any of them can put the kind of serious and recent per capita muck on the table as these three other worthy states. Certainly not when it comes to governors and federal officeholders.

I think we can all agree that Iowa is never going to win any (mock) awards for political corruption.

Historically and today, our problem is not so much law-breaking by elected officials but the “legal corruption” that stems from the influence of money in our system. So, we get state lawmakers traveling on the dime of the Iowa Healthcare Association, which represents nursing homes, and then lobbying Congress and state officials to reduce regulation of nursing homes.

Similarly, we won’t get any legislative action to give counties zoning authority over agriculture (which would allow greater regulation of large hog lots), even though Governor Chet Culver as well as the Iowa Democratic and Republican party platforms ostensibly support “local control.”

Iowa is not a particularly corrupt state, but we should not let our squeaky-clean image blind us to the influence of money in politics, even here.

To get involved with solving this problem, check out the Voter-Owned Iowa website. Public Campaign’s site has tons of information on how “clean elections” systems work in other states.  

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Clean elections supporters: Save the date of July 19

If you support the Voter-Owned Iowa Clean Elections (VOICE) act, which would create a voluntary public-financing system similar to that used for state elections in Maine and Arizona, you’ll want to come to Des Moines for this event:

State Representative Pam Jochum, who has proposed publicly financed elections yearly since 2000, will host a workshop at CCI’s annual convention to discuss how Iowans can win VOICE. The workshop will be held July 19 at the Hotel Fort Des Moines – additional convention information can be found at […]

At the convention, Jochum will speak about how Iowans can clear the hurdles to win VOICE.

Click the link to read the whole press release from Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement at Blog for Iowa.

Speaking of ICCI, John Nichols, a writer for The Nation, will deliver the keynote address for that group’s convention in Des Moines on July 18. More details on that event are after the jump.

Jochum gave up her seat in the Iowa House this year to run in Senate district 14. That’s a Democratic-leaning district, so we are likely to have a strong VOICE advocate in the upper chamber for the 2009 legislative session.

If you’re not familiar with the VOICE act, the Iowa Voters blog posted this detailed bill summary last year.

Public Campaign’s website is still the best source for information about clean elections reform nationwide.

Reducing the influence of money in politics is the key to solving many other problems. The Maine and Arizona-style systems are court-proof, because they are voluntary for candidates. But over time, more office-holders in those states have tended to run with the “clean money” option.

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Cable Giant censors ad against Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

David Donnelly of the Public Campaign Action Fund sent out this very disturbing e-mail today:

Dear [desmoinesdem],

Cable giant Insight Communications pulled our new ad on Mitch McConnell at the 11th hour last night.  Insight's executives have donated $17,000 to McConnell. Now they are helping him even more by engaging in political censorship to keep this ad, which criticizes McConnell for his special interest politics, off the air.

Sign this petition to tell Insight Communications that you won't stand for political censorship.

All the other broadcast networks, including NBC, ABC, and CBS and another cable system are running the ad after reviewing its content for accuracy. Why won't Insight air it? 

And what role did Insight lobbyist Keith Hall or Insight CEO Mike Willner, both McConnell donors and allies and big players in the national cable industry, play in making this decision to censor the ad?

We need answers to these questions and we need your help to hold cable giant Insight accountable for political censorship, which is a blatant move to help out their favorite big money politician, Mitch McConnell. Their decision to pull the ad at the last minute, and give us no notice or opportunity to respond to their concerns, is highly irregular and reeks of a potent witch's brew of big money donors, lobbyists with connections, unaccountable big media, and a powerful Senator.

Insight Communications is censoring political speech — sign this petition and tell them to take their big money muzzles off our airwaves.

High-powered lobbyists and moneyed special interests already dominate campaigns and political debate in this country — when they try and censor ads that draw attention to this disparity they must be held to account. If big money politicians and big media win, we all lose. Only in the narrowest sense is this is a fight about whether our ad runs. At its core, it's a fight about freedom of speech.

Sign the petition today and get this ad back on the air.

Thanks for your work,
David Donnelly
National Campaigns Director

P.S. Now more than ever we need to keep this ad running in Kentucky.  Please donate today to keep it on the air.



Here is David's diary at Daily Kos on the same subject:



If you haven't joined Public Campaign yet, you should:


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