After each scandal, such as the latest one involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Congress has made minimal efforts to reform its ethical rules and curb the influence of private money. True to form, the latest worthwhile reform efforts are faltering on Capitol Hill.
Congress, however, might be shamed into action if more attention was paid to aggressive ethics reform approved by state legislatures.
Year by year, politicians in many states hit by money scandals have been forced to shape up (New York passed the first major ethics law in 1954). The latest notable example, and one of the best, is a law passed in Connecticut last December that combines both public financing of campaigns and a ban on contributions to lawmakers by lobbyists and contractors - an effective one-two punch.
Connecticut lawmakers were forced to act after a scandal that saw, among others, a former governor sent to prison. In fact, the new law's provision on public financing is the first one passed by a state legislature, and notably covers both statewide and state legislative candidates. In recent years, Maine and Arizona could enact such public financing measures only by public petition or ballot initiative. And those laws didn't cover the wide scope of public offices. North Carolina has public funding for only judicial elections, while New Mexico's is for a regulation commission.
But activists in more than 30 states are working on such laws, though opposition remains stiff. In Massachusetts, voters approved a "clean-elections" law in 1998, only to have lawmakers overturn it for fear it would enable newcomers to more easily challenge incumbents.
And constitutional challenges to "clean election" laws are still being pursued, as well as attempts to plug loopholes in the laws. Connecticut's law, for instance, sets too high a hurdle for third-party candidates to get public money for campaigns. It also unwisely does not ban many lobbyists, such as those from unions, from contributing to lawmakers.
Paying for this public subsidy of campaigns also remains an issue. Arizona uses surcharges on court proceedings to raise the money. Connecticut plans to tap revenue collected from unclaimed property. But even when general revenues are used, the costs of publically financed campaigns are small compared with the total damage in special benefits, pork-barrel spending, and outright corruption created under a system where the actions of elected leaders are easily bought by big campaign donors.
The federal system of offering public finances to US presidential candidates, first begun in 1976, is no longer a model for the states. The money provided is too little to cover the immense costs of staging a campaign in party primaries. That system is under threat as more candidates choose to rely on private money.
Initial studies of Maine's and Arizona's public financing schemes indicate they do draw more candidates into races and offer increased competitiveness. Connecticut's new law, which takes effect with the 2008 races, should help add further proof that democracy runs best when undemocratic forces such as well-monied donors are not allowed to dominate campaigns and then later presume favors from the winners.