November 4, 2009
With the state Supreme Court’s ruling that Connecticut’s public campaign financing system, the Citizen’s Election Fund, is unconstitutional, the debate over using taxpayer dollars to finance political campaigns has returned to the capitol.
Conventional wisdom is that the legislature will return, either in the regular session of 2010 or in special session this year, to fix the law in order to withstand a court challenge. In so doing, there will once again be a discussion among my colleagues about the pros and cons of the Citizen’s Election Fund.
For the record, I’m opposed to public financing of campaigns as a matter of policy. But beneath the predictable policy and political arguments on this issue lies a far more fundamental disagreement. That disagreement stems from how both sides view human nature.
Proponents of public financing believe that all elected officials take office relatively free of corrupt tendencies, and this it is outside influences that change an individual and result in the abuse of office. They argue that those outside influences – the desire to be reelected, personal financial interest or the need for a job after leaving public life – are so great that they can wear even the strongest man or woman’s personal integrity down and force them to succumb to influence peddling. In short, politicians are human and it is up to the government to take all temptation away.
Implicit in that view are two assumptions. The first is that the act of an individual contributing to a campaign comes with an inherent demand for something in return. The second is that it is too much to ask the electorate to research where a candidate gets his or her financial support from, and consider that when it comes time to vote.
Conversely, opponents of public financing of elections tend to believe that some politicians come to office with less of a sense of right and wrong than others. Rather than blame the contributor, we blame the public official who didn’t have the courage or integrity to do the right thing when asked by a contributor for a favor, or even to reject contributions from entities with suspect intentions. Simply put, no elected official is a victim of circumstance. Those with weak morals will allow themselves to be corrupted.
This view, too, comes with assumptions. The first being that it is up to a public official to determine the intentions of a contributor before accepting a campaign contribution, and to have the courage to reject contributions from those who could even appear to be a corrupting influence.
The second is that the electorate has a responsibility to do a little homework and consider not only how we vote, but with whom we associate, while in office. The voters get to decide whether or not they approve of those associations when it comes time to cast a ballot.
Even as an opponent of public financing, it is hard for me to fault the intentions of those who support the Citizen’s Election Fund. The impulse to protect the electorate from corruption is an important one. However, my belief that some public officials make the choice to succumb to special interests lead me to another conclusion- that those who are predisposed to abusing their office will find a way to do so even in the presence of a public financing system.
Which then begs the question: Is it possible for the government to take away all temptation from all individuals, or is it simply government arrogance to think we can pass laws that “fix” humanity?
Jason Perillo is the state representative for the 113th District representing Shelton. He can be reached at 800-842-1423 or Jason.Perillo@housegop.ct.gov.