Inside the Golden Bubble: Campaign finance, one more time

Editor’s note: Inside the Golden Bubble is an occasional column about politics.

Politics can be the theater of the absurd, and never more so than when one member of the House of Representatives takes on the whole body over a controversial issue that no one wants to talk about.

Such was the case on Thursday afternoon when Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, attempted twice, and finally succeeded the third time, in forcing a discussion on the floor about the new campaign finance law.

Act 90 doubles contribution limits to statewide candidates and sets campaign contributions to parties at $10,000. The law also allows parties to give unlimited amounts to candidates. The higher caps were controversial, in large part because they did not reflect the limits in the original legislation passed by the House and Senate. And because they were offered for approval in a conference committee report no amendments could be made to the proposal. Fiery debates in the House and Senate ensued. Democrats and Republicans argued that unlimited party money would give candidates a fair shot at competitors who benefit from Super PAC money.

Act 90 was the first law enacted this year; the House and Senate conference committee came to an agreement on the first day of session, both bodies passed it and Gov. Peter Shumlin signed it into law last month.

But there was a technical problem. The effective dates were wrong, and so, lawmakers had to include a provision in a House Government Operations housekeeping bill — H.640 — and face the prospect of yet another impassioned debate over campaign contribution limits on the floor.

On Thursday, everything appeared to go according to plan. The bill was introduced, Browning’s amendment was brought up by House Speaker Shap Smith, a point of order was called, the respective parties marched to the Speaker’s podium, a brief discussion was held and the amendment was ruled nongermane because it pertained to the substance of Act 90, not the effective date correction. Her second amendment got the same treatment.

The third try was the charm. Browning asked to be recognized by the Speaker and introduced a third amendment that had not been reviewed by House Government Operations, it was passed out to the members and a recess was called. Browning and the committee members trooped up to the committee room and embarked on an esoteric discussion of effective dates.

Browning proposed moving the effective date to January 2019; the new law goes into effect in January 2015.

“We didn’t have an opportunity to amend the conference committee report and some of us don’t like the ideas incorporated in that bill,” Browning said. “Once parties and PACs have unlimited contributions, I don’t think were going to come back to that and take that away. Those are the things I’m concerned about.”

Browning said she believed the Legislature ought to take a “timeout” and think again about whether Act 90 is real reform.

Rep. Donna Sweaney, chair of Government Operations, begged to differ. The legislation is the General Assembly’s fourth attempt at campaign finance reform in 19 years, she said.

“It’s important that we do have a law,” Sweaney said. “I understand your concern when it comes to independent expenditures and PACs … and what the Supreme Court got us into, but I felt it was very important to at least try to hold the parties together.”

Changing the language at all would create a “touchy situation” with the Senate, according to Rep. Ron Hubert. There are some “loose cannons” over there, he said, and “if we play with it at all it’s going to be a disaster.”

The committee unanimously voted Browning’s amendment down and declared it unfriendly. Minutes later, Browning’s proposal went down in flames on the House floor.

Anne Galloway

Comments

  1. Doug Spaulding :

    You gave it a good shot Rep. Browning. Unfortunately, money talks, and even those that pretend they do not speak that language really do. In fact, many of them know it so well they can double talk…..

  2. Randy Koch :

    Could we hope for a follow-up story that explains why in this day and age we would want to RAISE the limits on campaign contributions, so redolent of legal bribery?

  3. Kim Fried :

    Oh our Vermont candididates are so afraid of PAC money so they support the PAC concept of big money. “Two wrongs make a right” a new approach towards Vermont politics. Let’s blame it on the Supreme Court instead of taking the high road and getting the big money out of Vermont politics. I guess when it comes to Vermont today money trumps all. Our Governor spends his time collecting checks. What ever happened to being Vermont being the “first in the country”, “leaders of the country”, ” leaders of the globe”. I guess that is all bull when it comes to CASH? This is how low Vermont has slipped, we should all be embarrassed.

    • Margaret Harrington :

      I am more than embarrassed that Vermont is not taking the high road and getting big money out of Vermont politics. I am outraged.

  4. So in the future we can expect to see people elected that the “Super PACs” want elected. And to think our Founding Fathers wanted all people to have equal access to Government. Career Politicians are a threat to our Sovereignty. We will only be able to run for office if we have the approval of the PACs or a few million in the bank.

  5. Cynthia Browning :

    I did the best I could to protect the Vermont electoral process and the interests of ordinary Vermonters from the “unlimits” on donations and the lack of disclosure about large contributions in Act 90.

    At least I was able to force renewed attention to those deficiencies.

    I am at work on a bill for next year.

    Rep. Cynthia Browning, Arlington

  6. Townsend Peters :

    One dollar, one vote. Two dollars . . .

  7. Al Salzman :

    Three cheers for Ms. Browning, but her campaign is quixotic – tilting at windmills. for decades now we have surrendered democracy to corporatocracy. It does not matter whose in the governors chair or the oval office – they are bought and paid for by those who are loyal to the bottom line and have no allegiance to society. For an excellent history of the corporate juggernaut which impacts every facet of our daily lives, read “When corporations Rule The World” by David Korten. If we are serious about campaign finance reform we must begin at the source and ask ourselves each day: “Which corporation’s coffers have I helped fill with my purchase today?”

  8. Margaret Harrington :

    Thank you, Representative Cynthia Browning, for working so hard on behalf of the people of Vermont.
    I predict you will succeed in the face of the self interest and fecklessness that surrounds you.

  9. walter moses :

    Rep. Hubert, just who are the “loose cannons”? Doesn’t the media ever ask these questions? Perhaps they don’t expect an answer. Thank you Rep. Browning for trying.

  10. Jim Barrett :

    Just another waste of time and anyone should be allowed to give to whoever they want just like the unions do for liberals/democrats! When a politician tries to pass a law when they have their hand deep inside the cookie jar, it is a farce. Another lawsuit wating to happen.

  11. Carol Vassar :

    Thank you Cynthia Browning. As with health care reform. No single piece of legislation will be perfect or even adequate. But Act 90 appears to be heading the wrong direction.

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