Common Cause iswary of money

CEO says he fears for democracy

October 8, 2009 

Bob Edgar, the president and CEO of Common Cause, is in the Triangle, where he is scheduled to speak tonight at the N.C. Justice Center's banquet in Durham as well as give a talk at the Campbell University law school in Raleigh. On Wednesday, he spoke at N.C. State University.

Common Cause, formed in 1970, is best known for advocating campaign finance reform and other efforts to promote cleaner government.

Edgar served 12 years as a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania. He is a Methodist minister who served as general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ. He spoke with The News & Observer on Wednesday.

Q: What do you think of the health of American democracy today? I think it's not well. I think money is the corrosive factor that has polluted our system over time. Obama talks about lobbyists. I would like to tap him on the shoulder and say, "Mr. President, it's really a toxic cocktail between lobbying and money." Lobbying in and of itself is not bad. If you look at the health-care debate, if you look at what happened with the banking industry, the investment industry, and you look at the industries of energy and global warming, all of them are already tainted by how much money Democrats and Republicans have taken from special-interest groups. I tell people I can retire as president of Common Cause the day after every public official serves the public interest and not the special interests ....

Q: There has been big money in politics for a very long time. Do you think it's worse than it was, say, 20 years ago? Absolutely. ... That is why a core issue for Common Cause is spreading the good virus of public financing. You have it here in North Carolina in your judicial races. A number of your municipalities are trying to move in that direction. We installed it in Connecticut after the former governor was put in jail. Last November, 74 percent of the candidates running for the legislature voluntarily used our public financing system and 81 percent of them got elected. We installed it in Maine and Arizona and in cities like Albuquerque and Portland. We are working on something called the Fair Elections Now Act in Washington. It is a voluntary public financing system for House and Senate members and we are hoping to get a vote in the House later in the year on it.

Q: How is special interest money affecting the health care debate? From 2000 to 2008, they [the health-care industry] spent $3 billion on lobbying and $350 million in addition has been given to just those House and Senate members who sit on the [health] committees and subcommittees. Both Democrats and Republicans who serve on the committees of jurisdiction have been tainted by the amount of money ....

I think August was a negative month. I think September was a better month for people calming down, lowering the rhetoric, asking the right questions. Common Cause has come out for some form of a public option. We polled our members and found many people believe there ought to be competition to insurance companies. I think there will be some form of public option in the final bill. I don't think it will come out of the Senate with a public option. But the House is committed to passing that provision, and I think when it gets to conference the conferees will agree with that House position.

rob.christensen@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4532

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