Chellie Pingree was Maine Senate Majority Leader when the Maine Clean Elections Act (MCEA) became law. Pingree has made a career out of this law – parlaying her role in its inception into a position as head of the advocacy group Common Cause, and ultimately using it as rhetorical cover for her own significant campaign finance abuses. Besides offering the Congresswoman an opportunity to engage in hypocrisy of the highest magnitude, Maine’s Clean Election Act has failed to offer the slightest positive impact.
The original intent of the law was fairly simple – to reduce the impact of money on politics, and to engage a broader sector of the electorate in the democratic process. Since the law went into effect, Maine taxpayers have paid millions to finance the political ambitions of hundreds of candidates. This has neither reduced the impact of outside money, nor has it impacted the participation levels of voters or candidates.
Studies have shown that Maine’s Clean Elections Act has failed to reduce the stranglehold of incumbents, it has failed to bring more ‘non-traditional’ (ie-non-lawyers) candidates into office, and it has failed to bring more women into elected office, all goals identified by proponents of the Act. The MCEA has also utterly failed to reduce the impact of money on elections. The proliferation of PACs and independent expenditures has made the Clean Elections Act a caricature of failed progressive policy, allowing candidates to proclaim independence from outside money while at the same time funneling tens of thousands of lobbyist and corporate money into so-called ‘leadership PACs’.
Besides not living up to the goals of the Act’s proponents, the concept behind clean elections is a travesty to begin with. Forcing taxpayers to fund the political ambitions of candidates they don’t even support is a disgraceful idea, and one that could only be propagated by an innately corrupt political culture. Think of the audacity of an incumbent candidate believing the constituents of his district should foot the bill for his television ads or campaign pamphlets.
One of the more perverse uses of the Clean Elections Act came during the 2006 gubernatorial race, when Democrat-turned-Independent candidate Barbara Merrill used approximately $1 million taxpayer dollars to finance a long-shot campaign. Not only did Merrill waste an extraordinary amount of taxpayer money chasing a hubris-driven folly, but she had the audacity to pay her husband over $100,000 to work for her campaign. In essence, the Merrill family was able to play politics for a few months, and took home a taxpayer-funded six-figure salary at the end of the day. This is the kind of moral hazard the Clean Elections Act has created, and a prime example of the inevitable result of a socialized election system.
Some would argue that the Merrill situation is an isolated incident. But let’s look at perhaps the nation’s strongest advocate for taxpayer-funded elections, Maine’s own Chellie Pingree. Pingree herself has a long history of breaking Federal Election laws, failing to report receipts and expenditures from her failed 2002 run against U.S. Senator Susan Collins. Pingree still faces FEC review stemming from the illegal use of her then-fiancee’s $25 million private jet to travel to campaign fundraising events. Pingree has since married billionaire hedge fund baron Donald Sussman, who last year funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars into Pingree’s campaign through third party groups. Chellie Pingree stands as perhaps the best example of the power of money in politics, and will likely hold on to her congressional seat for as long as she wants it, not because of her political popularity, but because of her husband’s bank account. Advocates of clean elections have yet to figure out what an insult it is to taxpayers to have Pingree lead the charge on this issue.
Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court has effectively neutered clean elections laws in Maine and Arizona by declaring matching funds rules unconstitutional. This means candidates who seek taxpayer support for their campaigns can no longer get a bonus from the government when their traditionally-funded candidates spend more than them, or when outside groups spend money in an election. This gets to the perverted heart of the law: the Clean Elections Act in its original form penalized taxpayers when outside groups spent money on campaigns. Ending this atrocity is a welcome step, and one that will most likely mean the rapid decline in participation by candidates who don’t want to be outspent by privately-funded opponents.
However, clean elections advocates, including Chellie Pingree, are still fighting to keep the MCEA alive. Meanwhile, these same liberal politicians are claiming cuts in government funding to social services programs means ‘people will die’. Playing zero-sum politics means expenditures have consequences, and it’s hard to imagine anyone would rather see millions of dollars go toward campaign signs and bumper stickers instead of hospital beds, medications for the elderly, or group homes for the disabled. Here is a golden opportunity to put the millions spent on MCEA into perspective, and show that spending decisions really do have consequences.
Maine Republicans should take advantage of this potential moral high ground by resisting attempts by Democrats to ‘fix’ the Clean Election act. Taking a public stand against the MCEA is a no-risk proposition, especially in light of the Supreme Court ruling, and may have the positive side effect of affirming their position as true stewards of both the rule of law and tax dollars.
Taking this kind of stand will require some self-reflection, though. Maine Republicans have an atrocious record when it comes to clean elections. In 2010, 94% of GOP senate candidates took their campaign funding from the pockets of taxpayers, compared to 82% of Democrats. 68% of House Republican candidates used taxpayer funds, compared to 89% of Democrats. And when freshman Republican Representative Aaron Libby of North Waterboro offered up a bill to end the MCEA once and for all, the bill died in the GOP-led House.
Maine Republicans should reflect on their role in the fleecing of Maine taxpayers through their participation in the MCEA, and seek ways to ensure their moral compasses aren’t so vulnerable to error in the future. Perhaps staying a little closer to the Aaron Libbys of the world, and a little farther from the Chellie Pingrees, would be a good start.