In the middle of a presidential election featuring the two least popular candidates in modern history, it’s easy to forget that Americans’ distaste for politics long predated 2016. And while half the electorate fumes at Donald Trump’s latest insults, and the other half condemns Hillary Clinton’s ethical myopia, it’s just as easy to overlook the day-to-day outrages that have made such large numbers of voters so contemptuous of their leaders.
Many factors have propelled Trump’s candidacy, but one major cause is widespread revulsion toward a pay-to-play system in which contributors are rewarded with access to the politicians of their choice. While Clinton is a less likely vehicle for this anger, she has proposed substantial campaign finance reform as part of her platform.
And yet here in California, our elected officials pay little attention to the public disdain for the increasingly transparent link between political fundraising and government action. When it was reported last week that Gov. Jerry Brown was planning private dinners with contributors during the September bill-signing period — in which he decides to sign or veto hundreds of pieces of legislation — almost no one batted an eye.
In a letter from the California Democratic Party, potential check-writers were invited to dinners at which Brown would “thank those that are able to help on his priorities.” The letter identified Brown’s top objectives as defeating a ballot measure that would give voters more of a voice on his signature high-speed rail and water conveyance projects (Proposition 53), as well as passing another initiative to implement his parole reform proposal (Proposition 57).
Left unmentioned, but understood by Capitol insiders, is that these meetings would take place at exactly the time when Brown would be making high-stakes decisions on legislation related to job creation, environmental protection, public safety and almost every other facet of life in California. The opportunity for deep-pocketed advocates to plead their case directly to the governor over small, leisurely dinners is invaluable – and the only cost to them is a big check.
Providing access [to donors] during such a critical policy period sends precisely the wrong message to voters who believe that their government is for sale.
For better or worse, fundraising is a necessary part of politics, and Brown does not deserve condemnation simply for soliciting donors. But providing access during such a critical policy period sends precisely the wrong message to voters who believe that their government is for sale to the highest bidder.
To be clear, Brown’s dinner-party plan is completely legal: Trading access in exchange for campaign contributions has been routine both in Sacramento and in Washington since time immemorial. Still, it represents a normalization of ethical overreach that should be resisted.
Two years ago, State Senate President Kevin de Leon unilaterally banned fundraising for his members during the last month of the legislative session in order to make clear their votes were not for sale. De Leon’s brave action was ignored by State Assembly leaders and by Brown, however, and this year he was forced to retreat in order to prevent state senators from being at a competitive disadvantage in their campaigns.
When Brown first sought statewide office in the 1970s, he stressed the need for campaign finance reform and passage of the landmark Political Reform Act, which regulated campaign finance and lobbying activity. When he ran for president in 1992, he railed against the excesses of large campaign contributions, limiting himself to donations of $100 or less and declaring that “Money is the problem, not the answer.”
The 21st century Brown, though, seems to find that axiom inconvenient. His dinner invitations serve as an important reminder that there should at the very least be some chronological separation between donor solicitation and consequential decision-making. Perhaps the one-time campaign finance reformer should rediscover his roots and delay his in-person fundraising appeals until the bill deadline has passed.
Dan Schnur is director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. He is a former Republican consultant who is now registered as a No Party Preference voter.