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House Freshmen Show Zeal for Reform

Barely five months into their first terms, House Democratic freshmen already have advocated creating an independent House ethics committee and imposing stringent lobbying rules. Now they’re ready to forge ahead on the even dicier topic of campaign finance reform.

Many of the freshmen ousted Republican incumbents in the fall — sometimes in GOP-leaning districts — and they apparently have calculated that a zeal for reform isn’t just good policy but also good politics.

During a news conference last week to show their support for a proposal by Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.) to end Congressional self-policing on ethics matters, almost every one of the 18 freshmen present said they want institutional changes beyond those already made during what Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called “the first 100 hours” of Democratic rule.

Those measures were a good start and got at matters “around the edges,” but now the powerful freshman class is looking for something “meatier,” Rep. Nancy Boyda (D-Kan.) said.

A good example is public financing for Congressional and presidential campaigns, she said.

“Many of us talk about public financing,” she said.

“The ultimate solution is real, fundamental overhaul of the campaign finance system,” agreed Rep. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.).

The freshmen, many of whom unseated Republican incumbents by promising to eliminate the corruption and conflict-of-interest scandals exposed during the past few years, meet weekly with Pelosi.

Wasting no time, the subject of public financing was broached during last week’s meeting with the Speaker.

Longtime campaign finance reform advocates are heartened by the freshmen’s eagerness.

“Our expectation is once we complete the efforts on lobbying reform and ethics enforcement, we intend to then focus on the need for campaign finance reform,” said Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer. “We need to repair the presidential financing system for future elections and we need to also extend this concept to Congressional races.”

Six-term Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) said he is thrilled that reinforcements have arrived.

He introduced the Clean Money, Clean Elections Act of 2007, for public financing of House campaigns, in March. When a number of freshmen brought the issue up at a recent Caucus meeting, Tierney said he immediately approached freshman class president Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), seeking help.

“We just sent a letter to the freshmen asking for their support,” Tierney said. “We hope to get 100 or more sponsors.”

GOP Rep. Todd Platts (R-Pa.) already is on board, making him the first Republican to join the effort, Tierney said. Also, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced companion legislation in the Senate, creating public financing for Senate races — the first time in 10 years anyone has done so in the Senate, Tierney said.

“We hope to persuade Speaker Pelosi that this bill has some momentum, particularly if the Senate starts to move,” he said.

There is at least one other Senate Democrat who needs no convincing.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) has spent a good chunk of his career trying to change how campaigns are financed.

Not content to stop at the landmark Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, better known as McCain-Feingold, Feingold has his own public financing bill pending in the Senate.

He introduced the Presidential Funding Act of 2007 in January, and also has signed on to Durbin’s bill.

“The climate is ripe now to make some headway on public funding for Congressional elections as well,” Feingold said in a statement. “Corruption in Congress was a big issue in the last election and people are not happy with the way the current system works.

“While it is still a huge uphill battle to pass a public funding system, the prospects certainly aren’t as bleak as they were five years ago,” he added.

Wertheimer, who has pushed for public financing of federal campaigns since 1971, said getting there will take time but if new Members put their weight behind an effort, real progress can be made.

“They have proven so far as being a strong force for reform,” Wertheimer said. “Many of them were elected on the reform issue and they have been meeting their commitment. These are just very tough fights.”

Wertheimer said the Jack Abramoff scandal reignited public interest in the issue. Further helping the cause is the 2008 presidential election, which is already on pace to shatter all previous records for spending on presidential campaigns.

“What’s going on in the presidential elections is a campaign finance system that is totally out of control,” he said. “I think what we are facing here is the beginning stages of another round of battles to both document the need for fundamental reform, which means public financing of presidential and Congressional races, and setting the stage for winning these fights.”

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