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Republicans losing their way on campaign finance reform

By Warren Rudman
Friday, February 5, 2010; A17

When I arrived in the U.S. Senate 30 years ago, I was a proud member of a Republican Party known for championing moderation in Congress, restraint in the courts and good-government reform.

In fact, the Republican tradition of campaign finance reform in which I stand dates to the trust-buster, Theodore Roosevelt. In his 1905 message to Congress, President Roosevelt proposed that "contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose should be forbidden by law." His logic was straightforward enough: "If [legislators] are extorted by any kind of pressure or promise, express or implied, direct or indirect, in the way of favor or immunity, then the giving or receiving becomes not only improper but criminal."

The resulting Tillman Act of 1907 and Federal Corrupt Practices Act of 1910 were the first laws limiting corporate money in federal elections and requiring strict disclosure of campaign funds. With the rise of organized labor in the 1930s, Republican Sen. Robert Taft and Republican Rep. Fred Hartley extended the ban on corporate contributions to unions. Those laws were dealt a serious blow by last month's Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. That such a rash and immoderate ruling could come from a chief justice once committed to respecting precedent, and win praise from leaders of my party, is beyond my comprehension.

It was congressional Republicans who led the 1971 effort to strengthen existing campaign finance law through the Federal Election Campaign Act. After the Watergate campaign finance scandal, Republicans in Congress joined with Democrats to pass far-reaching amendments to the 1971 law, limiting contributions and campaign spending and establishing a system of public financing for presidential campaigns.

In more recent years, my friend and former Senate colleague John McCain (R-Ariz.) took up the cause of reform with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), leading a decade-long effort to stem the flow of unregulated "soft money" from special-interest groups to political parties and to curb spending by outside interests.

That history of Republican leadership on campaign finance reform should remind Republicans in Congress today that it is not in our true nature to side with the moneyed interests against the interests of the American people. The Supreme Court has taken that stand.

It's time to return to our roots and take up Teddy Roosevelt's challenge from over a century ago by enacting the only real and lasting solution I know: citizen-funded elections. Under the proposed Fair Elections Now Act, sponsored by more than 130 members of Congress, money from special interests would be replaced by small donations from constituents and matching federal funds. Matching funds, raised through a fee on large-scale government contracts, would go to serious, hardworking candidates who demonstrate a broad base of public support and who say no to large donations.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress must work together to expand political speech for all citizens by replacing special-interest money in politics with small donations and public matching funds. Supreme Court opinion notwithstanding, corporations are not defined as people under the Constitution, and free speech can hardly be called free when only the rich are heard.

The writer, a Republican from New Hampshire, chairs the bipartisan citizen initiative Americans for Campaign Reform with former senators Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) and Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.). They are leading a federal push for voluntary public funding of congressional and presidential elections.

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