Those of us dedicated to political reform tend to be a very loud and critical chorus, primarily because our political leaders give us so much to complain about.
Presidential candidates in both parties compete to see who can make the biggest mockery out of the remaining shards of campaign finance law. At the state level, California legislators participate in a daily relay race in which they shuttle between their obligations in the state Capitol and an ongoing series of fundraising opportunities that occupy the bars, restaurants and hotels of downtown Sacramento.
Enterprising officeholders can schedule a fundraising reception within a five-minute walk from the floor of the 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.
But for the next several weeks, the din of legislators and special interests tacitly trading money for votes will be significantly quieter. For that respite, give credit to Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, who last year instituted a rule that banned fundraising during state budget negotiations and during the final month of legislative session.
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De León imposed the blackout periods after no fewer than three of his Senate colleagues were arrested on suspicion of a variety of ethical transgressions. The ban creates necessary distance between government action and political fundraising during the most important portions of the legislative session, as the reality of human nature suggests that a check delivered months before or after a key legislative vote would have less of an emotional impact than one written just minutes before or after the same vote. Inarguably, the amount of time that legislators would have to devote to their official responsibilities increases dramatically if they no longer must devote large blocks of time every day for fundraising calls, receptions and other legalized shakedowns.
Most importantly, de León clearly understood the important message that these types of restrictions can send to Californians who worry that their government is for sale to the highest bidder. Contrast de León’s actions on this front with those of his predecessor, former state Sen. Darrell Steinberg, whose reaction to the arrest of his three colleagues consisted mainly of foot-dragging and excuse-making, even while they continued to receive their taxpayer-funded salaries. The contrast between de León and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins is even more stark, as Atkins has refused to consider a similar blackout period in her own chamber.
Because of Atkins’ unwillingness to act, de León’s ban does not carry the force of law. But even as a self-imposed rule, state senators have dramatically reduced their fundraising during the final month of the session. In 2013, 40 senators raised more than $1.3 million during that high-stakes period. Last year, their take was only $75,000, merely 6 percent of what they’d raised the previous year.
Despite the impact of de León’s actions, the reform community has been silent. Fundraising blackout periods do not carry the sweep or grandeur of public financing of campaigns, the overturn of Citizens United or unilateral limits on either corporate or union contributions. But it represents the first substantive step toward campaign finance reform in California politics in many years: De León deserves applause for being willing to brave the insults of his colleagues and his donors in order to do the right thing.
Those who are addicted to the nonstop fundraising that characterizes 21st-century politics – on either the giving or receiving end – will resent de León for his achievement. But those who agree that our government works best when not drowning in campaign cash owe him our gratitude.
Dan Schnur is director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and the former chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission.