Dan Morain

Putin, condoms, kangaroos and other swamp things

An alligator in Everglades National Park.
An alligator in Everglades National Park. Associated Press file

Too often lately, our democracy seems to come down to a Russian strongman, condoms, kangaroo parts and a decrepit watchdog. Oh, and The Swamp that Donald Trump claims to want to drain. He won’t.

“We are going to have to brace ourselves,” Rep. John Sarbanes told me. “Trump is going to give a green light to all the special interests to wield more influence. He will be doing it by example.”

The Maryland Democrat has proposed legislation to encourage candidates to cultivate small donors by multiplying their contributions with a match of federal funds. The idea would blunt the impact of big money, but will go nowhere in the new Congress. To the contrary, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., offer legislation to blow the lid off the $2,700 cap on individual donations to federal candidates.

“The congressional cloak room should have a closet with suit jackets with the corporate insignia of members’ favorite corporate billionaires,” Sarbanes said.

Lest there be doubt about where Trump stands on regulating campaign spending, he chose as White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who left his mark on campaign finance law by not enforcing it. From 2008-13, McGahn sat on the Federal Election Commission. Probably the most dysfunctional federal entity, the commission is composed of three Republicans and three Democrats, nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

With McGahn aboard, the three Republican appointees voted in lockstep, restricting public disclosure of contributions and narrowing the political activity covered by the law. The three-three split means nothing gets done. The Republicans oppose regulation in the name of freedom. But the inaction often benefits big players who use their money to spread influence.

“McGahn was at the center of the defanging of the commission,” said Bob Biersack, who was chief spokesman for the FEC until he retired in 2011.

The commission’s shriveling doesn’t bode well for democracy, not when hundreds of millions are spent every two years on federal campaigns, and foreign influence in elections has proved to be more than mere fear.

That Russians would insert themselves in the 2016 presidential election came as no surprise to Ann Ravel, the former chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission and one of three Democratic appointees to the Federal Election Commission. In 2015, Ravel urged the commission to adopt a rule that would have made clear that foreign money is banned in state and local ballot campaigns, as it is in federal candidate campaigns.

“Vladimir Putin and narco-traffickers – do you want them influencing American elections?” Ravel said in a statement to the commission in 2015, a year before Russia’s hacking of the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton became known.

Noting that voters in many states use ballot measures to enact laws, Ravel told the commissioners: “Foreign governments, foreign businesses and foreign oligarchs should have no say in our land-use policy. The Federal Election Commission was established to protect the integrity of elections. Part of doing so is ensuring that our elections are free from foreign influences.” The three Republican commissioners stuck to their principles and rejected Ravel’s proposal.

Not to be indelicate, but Ravel was alluding to the condom question.

In 2012, Michael Weinstein of the AIDS HealthCare Foundation placed Measure B on the Los Angeles County ballot. Similar to Proposition 60 on the statewide ballot this past November, Measure B sought to require that porn actors use condoms in films shot in L.A. County. A Luxembourg-based internet porn conglomerate and its subsidiaries fought for their supposed rights by giving $343,000 to the No-on-B campaign.

Citing the longstanding federal law prohibiting foreign entities from giving money to domestic campaigns, Measure B backers complained to the Federal Election Commission. But the three Republican commissioners concluded that a ballot initiative campaign isn’t an election under federal law. And so the ban on foreign money did not apply.

The Yes-on-B campaign turned to the California Fair Political Practices Commission. The FPPC has no say over federal campaign law. But California law bars foreign meddling, and the commission identified violations and imposed a $61,500 fine a year ago on the Luxembourg-based group.

The issue “goes to the fundamental question about who should be able to participate in U.S. elections,” FPPC Chairwoman Jodi Remke said.

Which leads to kangaroos, and the swampy world of lobbying. Supposedly, roo skin makes excellent soccer shoes. But in 1971, before the soccer craze, Gov. Ronald Reagan signed a state law banning the importation into California of kangaroo parts, including kangaroo shoes.

In 2014, the Australian government contracted with the Kangaroo Industries Association to persuade the California Legislature to overturn the kangaroo parts ban. The kangaroo association hired the all-American law-lobby firm of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, which found a legislator, Assemblyman Mike Gipson, D-Los Angeles, to introduce a bill to change the law; it died, properly so.

Not content with killing the bill, defenders of kangaroos complained about the Australians’ involvement to the Fair Political Practices Commission. In a decision made public the other day, the FPPC concluded that the Australian government failed to fill out the proper forms publicly declaring that it was seeking to influence legislative action. However, the commission, evidently not wanting to create an international incident, opted to issue a warning letter, with no fine.

Australia is not Russia, and the Aussies weren’t trying to help elect Donald Trump. But clearly, the swamps in Sacramento and Washington teem with all sorts of creatures, some from down under, some from the Kremlin, many spawned from our own muck. Too often, the watchdogs don’t bark.

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