Congressman Paul Tonko talks campaign finance reform

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By Shayna Han

On Feb. 23, Congressman Paul Tonko (D, NY-21) came to Union to discuss campaign finance reform and American elections. Speakers Forum and Democracy Matters organized the event and over 100 people attended his talk.

Tonko spoke about the history of campaign finance reform and the power of money in American elections. He expressed concern about the landmark Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), a decision that defined money, particularly corporate money, as a form of free speech.

Citizens United, Tonko said, could do “real and lasting damage to our democracy” by allowing large and relatively anonymous torrents of money into American elections. Special political groups called Political Action Committees (PACs) and Super PACs release such torrents. PACs and Super PACs can accept money from virtually anybody without having to disclose the source, and can then donate that money wherever they wish.

Tonko stated, “The expectation which can often times speak to a self-serving, perhaps insatiably greedy agenda, which then displaces sound public policy … My biggest concern is the return.”

There is some fight against the Citizens United ruling. Tonko mentioned a 2010 bill called the DISCLOSE Act, which would strip away the PAC and Super PAC donors’ anonymity. The bill died in the Senate, one vote short of a necessary 60 to break a filibuster, but the Act is scheduled to be re-introduced in 2012.

Tonko feels that if the DISCLOSE Act is passed, “The hidden agenda won’t be as hidden anymore.”

Another alternative would be the public financing option – if a political candidate chooses the public financing option, the candidate can raise a specific amount of money, which is then matched by the government. After that, the candidate cannot raise or take any more money. When asked if he would take the public financing option if available in New York, Tonko responded that he would, depending on how the option would be developed and structured.

Recently elected to the Committee on Natural Resources, Tonko mentioned a few items that are on his agenda this legislative term. These items include the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and how the informational contributions of geology professor John Garver have showed the exponential growth of impacts on the Catskill watershed, which influences flood response and mitigation work. President Stephen Ainlay has worked with Tonko on the Mighty Waters Task Force, coming up with ways to better utilize New York’s Mohawk and Hudson Rivers as well as the Erie Canal.

Regarding the Republican presidential candidates, Tonko said, “They’re not addressing the issues that are upmost concerns to the American public. I don’t hear about job creation, I hear about everything wrong that President Obama is doing.”

Tonko encouraged college students to get involved in their communities. He also commended the “energy level, the enthusiasm and the idealism of college communities,” saying that such qualities “can really force us to get much more involved.”

President of Democracy Matters Gabriella Levine ‘14 concluded, “Student activism plays an integral role in ridding the large and often negative influence of big money in our political system.”

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