Blair Horner: The Democrats’ Commitment To Campaign Finance Reform Gets Tested

Mar 11, 2019

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives took a big step toward strengthening America’s democracy. The leadership pushed through H.R.1.  H.R.1 included several voting reform measures, strengthened voting rights protections, and a proposed overhaul to the nation’s campaign finance system.  In particular, H.R.1 set up a system of public financing based on a voluntary, small-donor matching system of public financing for Congressional races and strengthened the existing public financing system for presidential elections.

At its heart, H.R.1 would strengthen the role of average Americans in our political system – those who cannot write big checks.  By creating a campaign finance system that would promote reliance on a large number of small donors, instead of the current system which relies on a relatively small number of large campaign contributors, H.R.1 reduces the risk of corruption and would encourage candidates to get more voters engaged in elections.

Of course, the House is not the final decisionmaker, H.R.1 must be approved by the U.S. Senate and the President.  And it’s fair to say that the near-term prospects for passage are not good. 

House Democrats pushed H.R.1 through, but they knew it was unlikely to be embraced by the Senate and the President.  If the Democrats take control of the Senate and the White House, would that mean a version of H.R.1 would become law? 

Let’s look at a similar situation in New York.  For decades, the Democrat-controlled state Assembly approved versions of campaign finance reform similar to that proposed in H.R.1.  They knew that even if the governor agreed with them, the legislation would be killed in the state Senate—which has been largely controlled by Republicans for decades.  And they were right.

As of January, 2019 the Democrats have taken control of the state Senate and the Party now controls the lawmaking of New York’s state government.  Will they act to approve public financing?

Some ten weeks into the Democrats taking the reins of state government, it looks like the answer is “no.”

Governor Cuomo inserted a proposal to establish a voluntary system of public financing for state elections into his budget in January.  So far, so good.  In the state Senate, an overwhelming majority of Senators have previously supported public financing, indeed the current Senate Majority Leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, introduced a bill along the same lines as the governor last year.  That made things look more promising.

And as mentioned earlier, the state Assembly has approved public financing most years for the greater part of three decades.

So, it looked like big changes would come to Albany.  Thirty years after the Moreland Commission on Government Integrity described New York's campaign finance system as a "disgrace," state lawmakers would be considering a proposal by the governor to create a voluntary system of public financing that, like New York City’s, relies on small-donor matching.

This looked like the year it would get done.  But now, at the last minute, it appears that the Assembly Majority is getting cold feet.

At an event last week, the Speaker of the Assembly said it appeared unlikely that the Assembly would approve public campaign financing in the final budget agreement.  The Speaker was quoted in numerous media reports that the Assembly Democratic Majority now does not support public financing. 

After decades of approving a significant campaign finance reform plan, knowing it would get defeated in the state Senate, now – according to the Speaker – the Assembly doesn’t have the votes to pass it when it can become law.

If public financing gets derailed, the big bucks will continue to roll in and Albany will be worse off.  And the broken promise in Albany will undermine the pledge made by Democrats that if they take control nationally, they will pass public elections financing as contained in H.R. 1.

New York State should show the nation not only how to advance bills, but how to pass comprehensive changes aimed at reducing the risk of corruption as well as pulling back on the power of wealthy interests. 

The fate of public financing is expected to be determined next week.  New Yorkers desperately hope that Albany will finally deliver real reform that reduces corruption and boosts democracy.  It looks like the fate of public financing is held in the hands of the Assembly Democrats and the political leadership of the governor and the Senate Majority. 

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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