Monday, May 18, 2009

It Takes More Than Just a Law

Below is a letter that was sent to all legislators by Dawn Clark Netsch, former State Senator, former Comptroller, and one of my former law school professors.

I think a lot of Dawn, but in her support of campaign contribution limit legislation (a bill on which I am a Chief Co-Sponsor), she makes a statement with which I simply can't agree - "We cannot get back on track without regulating the amounts and sources of the money that goes into electing our representatives in government."
Dawn Clark Netsch
May 18, 2009

Dear Senator/Representative

Having spent 18 years as a member of the Senate, I am fully aware of the tensions and occasional chaos of the last few weeks of a legislative session—so many big issues to resolve and so many different approaches to how they should be resolved. But I also still feel strongly that it is important that the General Assembly emerge from the process with its credibility and integrity intact, that the voters believe that it has done its job well, however difficult the circumstances.

There is one issue that is critical to that outcome: reform of the culture of corruption that has damaged the standing and self-confidence of our state for too long. Addressing it is essential to our ability to deal rationally with the other problems facing us: horrendous budget deficits, economic development and jobs, unfunded pensions, healthcare needs, etc.

While there are many good proposals for reform pending—and I support most of them—there is one that is the rock-bottom essential first step, without which the goal of “reform” will not be taken seriously. And that one is campaign finance reform: strict and strictly enforced modest limits on campaign contributions by individuals, business, unions, PACs and all other political committees. I genuinely believe that we cannot get back on track without regulating the amounts and sources of the money that goes into electing our representatives in government.

For this reason, as both a frequent candidate and a frequent contributor to other candidates, I urge you—I plead with you—to enact campaign limits consistent with those reflected in Representative Harry Osterman’s HB24. They are reasonable, they will work, they are fair to candidates and parties alike, and, yes, we can live with the “millionaire” and independent expenditures challenges. Most importantly, it will go a long way to restoring confidence in an institution which I cherish and which all of Illinois wants to respect.

Sincerely, and best wishes,

Dawn Clark Netsch
While limits are unquestionably needed, people need to understand two things.

First, limits in no way take money out of politics. I could just roll out the 'look at Washington' line, but on a more personal note, I would point out that under the federal guidelines (which are more stringent than those proposed for Illinois), I raised about $750,000 in just over 6 weeks during my Congressional bid earlier this year. And while there is no question that contribution limits inherently limit the influence of any specific individual or entity, having gone through what it takes to raise that kind of money, I will say that it's all but certain that candidates will spend more time raising money, not less.

Second, no amount of laws are going to get us back on track in and of themselves. The countless individuals who have gone to prison didn't go there for doing things that common decency tells us that they shouldn't have done...They went there for violating laws already on the books. My point is not that we shouldn't pass long-overdue reform measures, of course we should. That includes limits, faster disclosure, and other related items.

Rather, my point is that we need to manage people's expectations so that they recognize that while good people won't do bad things even in the absence of laws, even the best of laws won't stop bad people from doing bad things.


At May 18, 2009 at 8:18 PM, Blogger Tom Clifford said...

Thanks for posting this. I'm a rising college senior, and I plan on writing my thesis on political ethics policies, so this brings out a lot of things I want to be thinking about. I haven't personally fully developed an opinion on the subject, but this brings up a lot of key questions that need to be resolved.

It seems to me that the statement you say you "simply can't agree" with is actually one you do agree with. You claim that campaign finance laws are not the only answer, but do seem to advocate them as at least PART of the solution. Netsch's advocacy, at least as it seems to me (and I'm just going off of what you posted here), does not claim that they are the whole solution. She simply claims that they are vital PART of the solution.

So, in conclusion, a false conflict with Netsch?

At May 18, 2009 at 9:16 PM, Anonymous Tom H - Chicago said...

I can't agree more with the statement that its not new criminal laws that are needed... the guys in prison now are there for breaking the laws on the books now.... We do need more transparency, sure.... but what we need are voters that care.
Vote not for whom your employer, neighbor, or government tells you to do... vote for filling that office with the best person for the job!

At May 19, 2009 at 12:56 AM, Blogger Rep. John Fritchey said...

Tom C,

Thanks for the post. No conflict, but a disagreement nonetheless. My point is that the reforms won't get us back on track by themselves. History has shown us that if people want to break the laws, they will.

As I said, we need to pass these reforms. But at the end of the day, having good people in office is more important than having good laws on the books.

At May 19, 2009 at 6:29 AM, Blogger Tom Clifford said...

Just trying to clear this up, let me make sure I'm understanding the difference:

You both think that legislative approaches are part of a solution, but you want to emphasize electing better people, whereas Netsch's emphasis is too much on the legislative approach and therefore does not emphasize non-legislative approaches enough.

Is that a fair summary of your disagreement?

At May 19, 2009 at 4:08 PM, Anonymous DuPage Saint said...

Goldwater said it best: "you cannot legislate morality". Besides it is my firm belief that the people of the Great State of Illinois do not want to stop the graft they just want part of it.

At May 20, 2009 at 1:50 PM, Anonymous lake county democrat said...

I strongly disagree with Netsch that the "rock bottom" reform is campaign finance reform. By far, that designation should go to gerrymandering, a direct attack on voters to make us as powerLESS as possible and shield incumbants from the effect of votes on anything but the most visible issues.

As far as funding goes, I'm ambivalent -- I'm more comfortable with limits on contributions to candidates than with something that might infringe the freedom of speech of third parties, even PACs. Like, how is somebody going to seriously challenge Mike Madigan in his district without a truckload of third party assistance? That's my general feeling -- I don't know what the specifics are of the pending legislation.


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