Political reformers in Washington appreciate three realities: Patience is a necessity, incumbent politicians don’t like change, and, if the opportunity strikes, you’d better be ready (unlike the Republicans on health care this year).
Those were the messages of a major effort launched Wednesday at the Brookings Institution. The focus is on campaign-finance reforms, including full disclosure of political contributions, and changes in the system for drawing congressional districts. Other goals include expanded voting rights and stronger ethics rules.
The movers, including leading reform groups and New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall and North Carolina Rep. David Price, both Democrats, know this is an uphill struggle: Supreme Court rulings have released a torrent of unregulated big money into political campaigns, and Republican congressional leaders and President Donald Trump will resist changes.
But reformers like Norm Eisen, the board chairman of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, see the president as an unwitting asset. “Trump is the most unethical president we’ve had in the modern era,” charges Eisen, who was the White House ethics counsel under President Barack Obama. “But the damage he has done to the values of good government may make it easier to rally bipartisan support for reform.”
Once there was bipartisan support for political reforms, going back to House Republican leaders like John Anderson and Barber Conable in the 1970s and 80s to Sen. John McCain in the past few decades. But the only Republican at the session on Wednesday at the Brookings Institution was Richard Painter, the White House ethics counsel for George W. Bush and an arch-critic of Trump’s ethics.
Reform advocates say they’ve learned an important lesson from Republicans who, after seven years of condemning Obamacare, were ill-prepared to replace it when they had a chance. That’s the point of fashioning proposals now on campaign finance, redistricting and other structural political changes.
On campaign finance, there will be two main objectives. One is to push for full disclosure of political donations. The Supreme Court has ruled this is constitutional, though Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is a formidable foe of transparency. There will also be a push for federal matching funds for small contributions, perhaps $5 for every private dollar, to help serve as an alternative to the political donations of the wealthy. A range of politicians from Obama to Bernie Sanders to Trump did well with small contributions, and the matching-fund system has worked well in several states and localities.
As for redistricting, the reform advocates want independent commissions to draw congressional lines, a system that has been adopted by four states: California, Arizona, Idaho and Washington. It creates more competitive and less partisan districts. Politicians of both parties have been responsible for some egregious examples of partisan gerrymandering.
With the current system in most states, said Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, “we’re allowing representatives to choose their voters rather than voters choosing their representatives.” There are legal challenges to gerrymandering in states like Wisconsin and Maryland.
And the reformers will seek to protect and broaden access to the ballot, after a number of states have made voting harder, especially for minorities. This comes at a time when a commission established by Trump seems intent on toughening voting requirements under the false pretense of preventing fraud.
There will be proposals to tighten conflict-of-interest and ethics rules for both the executive branch and Congress.
If all this feels like tilting at windmills, consider that even some bread-and-butter strategists see it as winning issue.
“Unless you talk about reforming the system, most voters won’t listen to you on other issues,” said James Carville, the Bill Clinton campaign strategist who was the source of the mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid.” (He also said, “Don’t forget health care.”) He’s urging Democrats to make reform a priority in the 2018 elections.
Wertheimer, the grandfather of these political reformers who goes back to Watergate, keeps a quotation from Nelson Mandela on his desktop: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.