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The problem with scapegoating lobbyists

A column in National Journal yesterday showcases the Obama administration’s difficult task of transitioning to governing from campaigning. The Obama campaign — and its Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain — engaged in nearly constant hyperbole about the supposedly corrupt influence of lobbyists.

Now, faced with the sobering task of governing in the real world, the Obama team is realizing that lobbyists are essential to picking competent people to fill key administration posts and offer expert advice on complex policy matters.

The "Rules of the Game" column by Eliza Newlin Carney features ‘good government’ groups criticizing any involvement of lobbyists in anything (especially in lobbying for U.S. Treasury funds) and government relations professionals who are understandably frustrated that the administration is treating the First Amendment like an inconvenience:

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Bizarro World Meets “Pay to Play”

Fans of sixties-era Superman comics, seventies-era Superfriends cartoons, and nineties-era Seinfeld episodes will remember Bizarro World, the strange cube-shaped planet where things are done the opposite of what one might think makes sense. The planet is ruled by the "Bizarro Code," which states "Us do opposite of all Earthly things! Us hate beauty! Us love ugliness! Is big crime to make anything perfect on Bizarro World!"

So what has me strolling down corny pop-culture lane for this blog post? The Brennan Center, and their Bizarro World perspective on so-called "pay to play" laws that prevent anyone who contributes to candidates from receiving government contracts. More specifically, Brennan’s recent criticism of the Senate confirmation of Ray LaHood, former Illinois Congressman and now Secretary of Transportation in the Obama administration.

From their release:

Roads and bridges… and the lucrative contracts for their construction-are the stock-in-trade of pay-to-play politics… By softballing LaHood’s confirmation hearings, the Senate missed the opportunity to exact guarantees that the pay-to-play culture of Bush’s Transportation Department and LaHood’s home state of Illinois won’t make inroads into the Obama Administration…

To read more about the Bizarro logic of "pay to play," click here

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Hysterical “Reformers” Challenged on DailyKos, OpenLeft

One of the things I’ve noted in the past is that so-called campaign finance "reformers" tend towards the hysterical and uncritical, willing to accept almost any argument at face value and latch onto any scandal and somehow twist it into a reason for further limits on citizens First Amendment rights of speech, assembly, and petition.  And if it isn’t a scandal, then by the time their press operation is through it will be!

By and large I believe this is true, with a very few notable exceptions. So it was with a great deal of enjoyment today that I ran across the latest exercise in hysterical rabble-rousing by Lawrence Lessig on a few left-oriented blog sites and saw the responses of many who were clearly not buying it, even though many of them appeared to be themselves favorable towards so-called "reform."

Click here to read more about the critical eye given to Lessig’s pronouncement of "corruption"

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Waiting for the “reformers” to find the elephant that isn’t in the room

Late last week, former Republican Majority Leader of the New York State Senate Joseph Bruno was indicted for corruption. According to the indictment, Bruno was using his position to steer contracts to companies that employed him as a "consultant."

Missing from the indictment, as is usually the case with elected officials who wind up in this sort of trouble, is any mention of campaign contributions.  Somehow, however, I’m certain that Bruno’s indictment will shortly become exhibit A in the argument for "clean elections" or "pay to play" or some other "reform" in New York and elsewhere.

After all, the "reformers" used the corruption scandal of former Connecticut Governor John Rowland to get the Nutmeg State’s so-called "pay to play" law enacted, banning contributions from anybody lobbying or doing business with the state, despite the fact that his scandal had nothing to do with campaign contributions. You can read the press release of the Brennan Center applauding the recent decision by a federal judge to uphold Connecticut’s law, you’ll note Rowland’s misdeeds include conspiring "…with other public officials and state contractors to award and/or facilitate the award of state contracts in return for free or greatly reduced vacation stays in Florida and Vermont, free construction work on his Connecticut lake cottage, and free private jet flights to Las Vegas and Philadelphia-the value of which totaled in excess of $100,000." Nary a mention of campaign contributions.

So it’s hard to imagine them not seizing on this scandal to promote the idea that if only Bruno had been able to dip his hand into the public till to fund his campaigns, or if citizens doing business with the state could be stripped of their First Amendment right to support the candidates of their choice, then all would be well in the Empire State.

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Even paranoids have enemies

The so-called "Fairness Doctrine," better called the Censorship Doctrine, has been the topic of much discussion the past few years. President Obama has pretty explicitly stated that he’s opposed to its return, while several Congressional leaders including Speaker Nancy Pelosi have endorsed the return of government control of political speech on the radio.

While opponents of the Censorship Doctrine’s return (including those of us here at the Center for Competitive Politics) have been writing about the dangers of this misguided policy and forming coalitions to battle attempts to bring it back,  others have instead turned to mocking the concerns of millions of Americans who do not want to see government bureaucrats poring over the transcripts of radio talk shows to ensure that some political appointee’s definition of "fairness" has been met.

Generally, these comments take the position that return of the Censorship Doctrine is unlikely, or at least not a priority of the majority party, so all concerns are simply paranoia and delusion. A sampling of this commentary includes –

Fairness Doctrine Fears: A Fake Right Wing Firestorm, by Jason Linkins at the Huffington Post:

…now, right wing radio is all a flutter with the notion that the Obama White House, working in combination with Nancy Pelosi and some magical Che Guevara tee-shirts, are set to reimpose the Fairness Doctrine and effectively muzzle the Limbaughs and Hannitys and Savages and all the lesser lights that populate that ever-declining medium known as terrestrial radio…

…people believe that the Fairness Doctrine is, for some reason, going to be making a return in 2009. George Will is warning his readers against it! Michael Gerson is advising Obama not to reimpose it! Kooky, episodic conspiracies are getting cooked up over it. And K. Lo at the National Review wants to come up with some new name to refer to it. Hey! How about the You All Are Totally Kidding Yourselves Doctrine?

Obama’s official position is that he DOES NOT WANT the Fairness Doctrine reinstated…

To read more about the efforts to diminish concerns over the return of the Censorship Doctrine, as well as the truly alarming comments of pro-Censorship Doctrine advocates, click the headline above.

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And are the “special interests” riding unicorns, or flying carpets?

Much has been made by advocates for greater campaign finance restrictions of the ability of taxpayer-funded political campaigns, commonly called "clean elections" or "voter-owned elections" by advocates, to banish so-called "special interests" to the sidelines while elected officials untainted with contributions from these groups are able to "do the people’s business," or whatever the platitude of the week is on this subject.

So imagine my surprise to read the following passage today in an Arizona Republic news article discussing Arizona’s current budget meltdown:

…the Legislature could close the deficit with only moderate cuts if voters agreed to throw the protected programs into the mix…It would be ugly, given the special interests that would rise up, and it would be a fight.

Special interests? I thought such creatures had faded from memory in the Copper State, driven off by "clean elections." In fact, the web site of Arizona’s Clean Elections Institute proudly states that "When campaigns are publicly funded, special interests have no "favors" to redeem once a candidates [sic] win office..."

To read more of existence and influence of the supposedly extinct or at least endangered "special interest" in Arizona politics, click the headline above

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FEC Commissioners release statement on The November Fund

In a statement released today, three FEC commissioners explained why they decided not to pursue further enforcement action against The November Fund, an independent group that received donations from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The central issue in the matter was whether The November Fund was a "political committee" as defined in the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA). The November Fund is an issue advocacy group registered with the IRS as a 527 organization. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a left-leaning watchdog group, filed a complaint about The November Fund soon after it was established in 2004.

In a "Statement of Reasons" (SOR) commissioners Donald McGahn, Matthew Petersen and Caroline Hunter laid out a clear rationale for determining that The November Fund is not deserving of "political committee" status under FECA and should not be subject to any penalties as a result.

"There is nothing bold in the Commissioners’ statement," said Center for Competitive Politics Vice President Stephen Hoersting. "The statement is a clear explanation of current constitutional law and goes further to explain how the November Fund committed no violation even under the Commission’s recent and flawed precedents."

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Implementation of the stimilus will likely be marred by ‘pay-to-play’ laws

As Congress and the administration of President Obama prepare an economic stimulus package in an effort to jumpstart the economy, lawyers at a top political law firm warn that the so-called ‘pay-to-play’ laws at the state and local level could mar the process or require the government to contract with firms that bid higher for projects.

The momentum for ‘pay-to-play’ laws, which ban contractors, lobbyists and others connected with entities that receive contracts from a state from donating to state officials, has increased in state legislatures across the country in the wake of the Blagojevich scandal. The misguided laws curb the First Amendment freedoms of Americans guilty of nothing but engaging in their right to support the candidates and causes of their choice, and serve no practical purpose. There’s no evidence that ‘pay-to-play’ laws have any effect on limiting corruption.

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The Good and the Bad in the Maine Legislature (No Ugly, Yet)

Maine State Representative  Richard Cebra has introduced legislation that would repeal the Pine Tree State’s so-called "clean elections"  program. First enacted in time for the 2000 election cycle, the program has failed on nearly every count:

Kudos to Representative Cebra for his efforts to end this wasteful and failed system.

On the other hand, petition circulators in Maine had best beware if Representative Mark Bryant gets legislation through limiting who can ask citizens to sign petitions.

To read more, click on the headline above

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“Reformers” Pitch “Pay to Play,” Ignoring Lack of Campaign Finance Connection to Scandals

Nathan Koppel has an article in the Wall Street Journal today on so-called "pay to play" laws. A few key excerpts:

Should free speech be curbed in the name of good government? The debate, which has hovered over U.S. political campaigns for years, has taken on new fervor in the wake of recent political scandals.

Good-government advocates have stepped up their calls for states and the federal government to crack down on money in politics, particularly so-called pay-to-play practices in which businesses give favors or gifts to politicians in the hope of getting some benefit in return. State legislatures across the U.S. are considering laws curbing campaign contributions, efforts that civil-liberties proponents say could threaten free speech.

Click the headline above to read more about the growing threat of "pay to play" laws and why these laws don’t work

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