In the final weeks of the legislative session, when members' attentions are torn between the hundreds of bills still to be voted on inside the Capitol and thousands of dollars to be raised just across the street, it becomes easy to understand why Californians are so dissatisfied with their state government and so suspicious of the men and women who've been elected to run it.
Caught between the competing pressures of formulating policy for the people and soliciting money for their next campaign, 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.
There's nothing illegal about this type of juggling act, and there's little indication that any legislator actually trades their vote away in direct exchange for campaign cash. But the spectacle of our elected representatives scurrying around Sacramento to an ongoing cornucopia of fundraising breakfast, lunches and receptions squeezed in between floor debates and committee hearings sends an unfortunate and often inaccurate message to voters that public policy is only the second highest priority for their elected representatives.
The fundraising frenzy is most notable toward the end of the legislative session, when a dozen or more events take place every day. In the first two weeks of August this year, more than 70 different functions were held, and the pace accelerates even more when adjournment draws closer. But the race for campaign cash is a sport for every season: when legislators introduce bills in January and February, when they make budget decisions affecting billions of dollars in taxpayer money in May and June, even when they return to Sacramento at the end of the year for a pro-forma organizational session in December. Winter, spring, summer, or fall, when members of the Senate and Assembly come back to town, all the special interests have to do is call.
For all the debate about how to decrease the amount of money spent on political campaigns, the more important concern should be how to weaken the link between campaign contributions and government action. During his time in office, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger suggested that both lawmakers and the governor be prohibited from raising money at various times during the legislative and budgetary processes. His critics argued that short-term restrictions would merely re-channel the flow of money into other points on the calendar. The answer is to take Schwarzenegger's proposal and to push it further: no fundraising allowed at all while the Legislature is in session.
The ban would apply to legislators and statewide officeholders alike, to both incumbents and challengers. It 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.
Defenders of the status quo will correctly argue that time limitations will not eliminate the need for campaign fundraising or reduce the cost of political campaigning in a state of this size. But a ban during session will ensure that our representatives concentrate on the jobs they were elected to do during the time that those jobs demand the most time and attention.
By increasing the amount of time that passes between a government action and a campaign contribution, the appearance of corruption would be dramatically reduced. And 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.
No fewer than 15 other states currently prohibit fundraising of any type while their legislature is in session, and their elected representatives are not immune from suspicion or scandal. But creating some distance between the casting of votes and the writing of checks can send an important message to politicians, donors and citizens alike.
For the vast majority of lawmakers, who would never dream of trading their vote for a political donation, the ban should come as a welcome relief, pushing back against the growing perception among voters that our elected representatives are for sale to the highest bidder. For lobbyists, who constantly race through the streets of downtown with checkbook in hand on behalf of their clients, a more stark distinction between issue advocacy and political giving should make for a far less stressful professional and personal existence. And for the people of California, the great majority of whom prefer to contribute to charities rather than candidates, such a ban can draw a bright line that will separate the two most time-consuming activities in any politician's life.