Staff Columnist

Government reform movement is a two-party affair

Groups pushing for federal accountability have a bipartisan blind spot

Corn maze near Manchester shot August 13, 2006. The politcal party symbols, the donkey and the elephant are seen in the maze.
Corn maze near Manchester shot August 13, 2006. The politcal party symbols, the donkey and the elephant are seen in the maze.

A national group is calling on Iowans to join the fight against money in politics.

Issue One is a government ethics organization which has earned support from two celebrated Iowa politicians — former U.S. Rep. Jim Leach, a Republican from Eastern Iowa who was defeated in 2006; and former U.S. Rep. Berkley Bedell, a Democrat from northwest Iowa who retired from public office in 1986. Both spoke at an Issue One event this week in Des Moines.

The group has a long list of policy objectives aimed at increasing transparency in federal policymaking and reducing the influence of money in politics, including requiring businesses which do business with the government to disclose their spending, restricting fundraising activity by registered lobbyists, and reorganizing the Federal Election Commission and the Office of Government Ethics.

In principle, goals like those are backed by a majority of American voters, who polls show are losing faith in the system. A poll from the Pew Research Center this year showed only 18 percent of respondents said American democracy is working “very well,” and 77 percent support limiting the amount of money individuals and organizations can spend on politics.

In practice, however, federal policymakers have shown little appetite. While Issue One counts more than 100 former representatives and senators among its supporters, fewer than 30 current members have signed up to support Issue One’s legislative efforts.

“It’s very difficult for current members to take on this issue because they are the ones who are out there having to raise the money to stay in office. It’s hard to go and talk about the system when you’re up to your eyeballs in it,” Issue One director Meredith McGehee told me this week.

As evidence of Americans’ interest in the issue, McGehee pointed to President Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who each drew enormous support in 2016 on a message of diminishing the impact of money in politics.

It’s an admirable endeavor, but this and other good government campaigns have a glaring blind spot: They are fundamentally bipartisan efforts, powered by Republicans and Democrats, even as more Americans are not identifying with either political party.

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Self-identified political independents made up a narrow plurality of American voters for much of the last 30 years, but their ranks have surged since 2008. Last year, independents made up 42 percent of the electorate, compared to 29 percent Democrats and 27 percent Republicans, according to a Gallup poll. And in the recent Pew poll on American democracy, 61 percent said significant changes are needed in the “design and structure” of the federal government.

Even still, there are very few national organizations advocating for greater no-party or third-party representation in American politics. Issue One’s policy priorities do not include any mention of the barriers Republicans and Democrats have erected to exclude alternative candidates, like making it more difficult to achieve ballot status.

No doubt, money is influencing our elections. But the game will still be rigged, even if we get rid of the big money.

l Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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