A Christmas Scandal

Our guest blogger is Lisa Gilbert, a Democracy Advocate with U.S. PIRG.

A foul smell is overwhelming the scent of pine this holiday season as the nation learns more about corruption allegations facing Rod Blagojevich.

Governor Blagojevich has been accused of trying to hold the editorial board of the Tribune hostage for state funding, asking for gifts from contractors and hospital executives, and trying to sell a Senate seat to the highest bidder. Blagojevich should resign effective immediately; however the activities that he so casually engaged in are a loud wake-up call to the undue influence of money on our political system.

The need to constantly seek enough money for campaigns is the reality of our democracy. The candidate with the most money spent on his or her behalf typically wins 85%-95% of elections. The relentless pursuit of this funding, oftentimes from those who have a stake in what happens in legislative decisions and appropriations, creates an environment in which money (and who it came from) can mean more than representing your constituents.


While we can’t stop people like Governor Blagojevich from seeking to game the system for personal gain, we can try to halt the tide of private contributions that lead politicians toward corruption. To do this, we need to clean up our election process by putting in place a strong public financing system.

The public supports this idea. In 2008, unprecedented numbers of small donors supported President-elect Obama. Following this historic upturn in involvement, small donors are looking for a fair system that will recognize their support. According to polling data from Lake Research Partners and the Tarrance Group:

Voters support a proposal for publicly funding elections that includes a ban on lobbyist contributions and accepting only small contributions by over a 5-to-1 ratio.

Even before the Blagojevich holiday scandal, the public was concerned about the corrupting influence of money on politics. 77% of voters also said that they worried that big gifts to politicians would keep Congress from working on critical issues like jobs and the economy.

The Fair Elections Now Act was introduced in the 110th Congress by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), and Rep. Walter Jones, Jr. (R-N.C.). President-elect Barack Obama was a co-sponsor on the bill, which will put in place a system where opt-in candidates qualify for funds to start their campaign by receiving a significant amount of small donations from individuals. Candidates will agree to take no large donations and to keep their own funds out of the race in exchange for this public funding. Small donations will be matched with public funding to help further level the playing field.


As Americans enjoy this Christmas and hope that under their trees they’ll find a universal healthcare system and green job creation, let’s give them a chance to be heard by their elected officials. President-elect Obama promised to reform the public financing system. Let’s hold him to his word, and transform the big money system that allows corruption at the Blagojevich level to flourish into a participatory clean system of public financing.