Why campaign finance reform is needed

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(Credit: Martin Kozlowski illustration)

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Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) represents New York's 1st Congressional District.

 

Partisanship has been a reality of American politics since one of our parties was called the Loyalists. But it's hard to shake the feeling that lately it has trumped statesmanship in Washington, and that scoring political points has replaced governing.


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After this election cycle, there can be no doubt that the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and the subsequent flood of anonymous special-interest money into the political process has led to a sharp increase in partisan attacks on TV and radio.

Since Citizens, any person or group can spend an unlimited amount of money to advocate for or against a candidate in federal elections. It's a clear example of judicial activism that overturned a century of legal precedent and successful laws, like McCain-Feingold, that were designed to limit the influence of special interests in politics.

Anonymity breeds both incivility and misinformation, two words that characterize the attack ads unleashed this year. I should know: More than a million of these anonymous special-interest dollars were spent against me in a matter of months. I have faced tough opponents funded by out-of-state interests in past campaigns, but in the past, disclosure laws ensured a measure of transparency for voters.

One new group that attacked me this year, the so-called Alliance for America's Future, consists of anonymous donors, a post office box in the Washington, D.C., suburbs and a one-page website with a 26-word mission statement. Yet, this group spent more than $500,000 to influence a congressional race on Long Island.

And, with the ink on my election certification barely dry, I've already been targeted again by the endless political attack machine funded by anonymous special interests. Crossroads GPS, headed by Karl Rove, is running radio ads in several districts where the Democratic incumbent prevailed in a close election. In my case, the ad used a hodgepodge of hackneyed talking points and misleading language to urge me to support the tax cut package.

The problem is, I'd already announced my support for the package, since it addresses middle class priorities. But Crossroads GPS isn't interested in accurately representing my positions, much less having a debate about policy. As an article on Politico.com notes, the ad is part of the "first offensive of the 2012 election cycle."

My election was certified a mere week ago, yet there are already groups lining up political attacks and looking toward the next election. Just think of the poor radio listeners who hear holiday music on WALK, followed by a political attack ad - and think they're in a time warp.

The timing of this ad may be almost comical, but it highlights just how broken our system is. By treating every issue as the same kind of political football, these groups motivate lawmakers to make decisions based on political expediency. When we play this game, everybody loses.

The Citizens United decision has led to a growing permanent political class that thrives on partisanship and, it appears, a 365-day-a-year campaign cycle.

I'm hopeful we can take bipartisan action to enact campaign finance reform in the coming Congress. Good public policy requires two sides willing to come together and compromise, an impossibility in a superheated partisan environment fueled by anonymous attacks. Given that most of these groups targeted Democrats last cycle, some may accuse me of having partisan motives. To those cynics, I would say one thing: There are Democratic billionaires, too.

So, do we want an escalating political arms race or commonsense campaign finance reform that limits the influence of special interests and requires full disclosure?

The current attack ad against me poses the question, "Whose side is Tim Bishop on?" - an interesting question from a group that doesn't have the courage to report its funder. Fortunately, these groups are only as effective as their ability to deceive the public. So, the next time you hear an attack ad, listen to the end to find out who paid for the ad. If you've never heard of them, you can be sure they're on someone's side, just not yours.

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