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The Reform Group That Came In From the Cold

At last, one campaign finance reform organization has stepped up to its obligation to the public interest, with regard to Senator McCain's machinations. And it's a big one: Common Cause, under the welcome new leadership of Bob Edgar, formerly head of the National Council of Churches, and earlier a member of Congress from Pennsylvania, one of the best of the legendary class of 1974.

Common Cause sent letter to McCain that gets it exactly right:

[W]e are concerned that your recent actions in regard to public funding in the presidential primaries may undermine respect for the federal campaign finance laws, especially the presidential public financing system. Having opted into the system last summer – and having signed a binding certification agreement with the FEC – it is clear to us that you need an FEC vote to allow you to withdraw.

You can read the full letter here (pdf) and the press release here. Common Cause says it "is not prejudging the legal ins and outs of whether your campaign can still withdraw from the system after using the prospect of public matching funds as an active ingredient in a private $4 million loan agreement and to secure free ballot access in several states," which is appropriate -- it's all totally unprecedented, which is why the FEC has to decide. The letter goes on to strongly encourage McCain to support reform of the public financing system, and to support for full public financing for congressional elections and encourages him to return to it, and it asks him to do all he can to break the impassed on nominations to the Federal Election Commission, which are currently held up by Mitch McConnell's insistence on packaging four nominations together, including that of Hans von Spakovsky. My favorite thing about the letter is its straightforward declaration that "As a presidential candidate, you have set aside the reform mantle," and the absence of the fulsome, obsessive, you-still-love-us-don't-you praise of previous reform-group letters to McCain.

The phrase "your actions...may undermine respect for...the presidential public financing system" is particularly important. Right now, a number of candidates who honestly and earnestly opted to participate in the public financing system, such as Chris Dodd, Mike Huckabee, and Dennis Kucinich are still waiting for their checks. The reason they haven't received the funds yet is that the system doesn't have enough money. It doesn't have enough money because taxpayers don't have enough confidence in the system to check of the $3 box. And given McCain's manipulation of the system, why should they? So McCain's manipulation is not a victimless crime. The victims are those candidates in both parties who tried to use the public financing system as it was intended.

A few years ago, McCain and his allies made life very difficult for Common Cause, for not following their line on 527 committees and other regulations. So this letter cannot have been an easy.

I've often been critical of some of the campaign reform groups. But as the only group with a real sizable membership, with a history as "The People's Lobby" that goes back to its opposition to the Vietnam War, Common Cause is different. We need it to be strong, and unafraid. I've long been a supporter of Common Cause, today, I became a member.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 4, 2008 | Permalink