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Fair Elections: Ending the Earmark Game

In these belt-tightening times, CEOs could be forgiven for salivating over the details of the unfolding PMA scandal: Roll Call recently reported that $542,350 in campaign contributions from PMA clients to three lawmakers on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense yielded more than $100 million in defense earmarks.

Taken together, that would be an 18,400 percent return. What other corporate investment could post similar returns? What’s more, the exchange of favors detailed in the media coverage of the PMA story is, for the most part, perfectly legal. The FBI’s reported investigation of PMA focuses only on whether a small fraction of the millions of dollars in contributions it channeled were “straw men— contributions (those in which a proxy donor acted as a pass-through for the actual contributor).

Those donations account for only a few drops worth of money in the swamp of influence peddling. Even if Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) succeeds in his current push for a broader ethics probe of the PMA situation, such an investigation would, once again, only nibble around the edges of the real issue — as a percentage, the number of contributions or earmarks that violate either Congressional ethics rules or campaign finance laws is likely to be minor.

Indeed, experienced players easily avoid such blatant fouls. The vast bulk of the media coverage of PMA, and of the Jack Abramoff scandal that preceded it, focuses on the unseemly details of what, in reality, is commonplace behavior among D.C.’s power brokers.

Little wonder that Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), a major beneficiary of PMA’s contributions and a major dispenser of appropriations earmarks, is “contrition-free,— as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports. After all, the same behavior that the media deem worthy of censure earns him accolades in his home district, where a banner reads “We Support John Murtha. He Delivers for Us.—

As Murtha argues, earmarks are a perfectly legal part of the game, and he’s just a much better player than most of his peers. The Post-Gazette describes the PMA triangle as follows: Murtha “directs earmarks to particular firms that hire lobbyists who, in turn, direct campaign contributions back to Mr. Murtha.— For investigators to search for smoking-gun evidence of criminal intent in such a Borromean knot is as difficult as trying to pinpoint formal causation in a chicken-and-egg problem.

What is needed is not just an investigation. What is needed is a game changer, something to cut through the knot of influence-peddling once and for all. Just such a game changer was introduced a few weeks ago in Congress: the Fair Elections Now Act, sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Reps. John Larson (D-Conn.) and Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.). FENA would break the stranglehold of money on politics by providing qualifying Congressional candidates “fair elections— funding to run a viable campaign in exchange for agreeing to take no contribution larger than $100. This program fundamentally alters the supply and demand incentives of the current fundraising game: Under FENA, participating candidates would no longer be as dependent on money from large contributors and lobbyists, and would have little need for influence-peddlers such as PMA.

Recent polling by Lake Research Partners and the Tarrance Group found that 67 percent of the public supports such a system, and 79 percent sees large campaign contributions as obstacles to the major policy challenges of our times. The public seems well aware that fundraising scandals should generate corrective reform. The fate of FENA will show whether such connect-the-dots logic has a place in Washington.

Tomorrow, the Brennan Center is holding a one-day conference at the National Press Club that will explore whether this moment is ripe for reform, in light of the 2008 elections, the small-donor revolution, and the causes and consequences of the economic meltdown. Public interest in this issue is high, and, ideally, spirited conversation will help push past the latest rounds of ethics scandals toward fundamental change.

Monica Youn is an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

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