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Northampton activist Josh Silver takes on money in politics

Abramoff was once one of the country’s most powerful influence peddlers before being convicted on federal corruption charges in 2006. He was sentenced to six years in prison and served 43 months. Silver is a clean elections crusader who founded the nonprofit Free Press in Northampton a decade ago with the intention of engaging the American people on media policy. He is now executive director of another Northampton nonprofit, United Republic, a watchdog organization seeking to drive money from politics.

Today, the two are political allies, heading a wider coalition of activists hailing from across the political spectrum that embarked on a campaign this week to rid American politics of money. They call it Represent.Us.

The coalition comes armed with a piece of proposed legislation, the so-called American Anti-Corruption Act. Penned by a former chairman of the Federal Elections Commission, it seeks to enhance the transparency requirements surrounding campaign contributions, limit the influence of lobbyists and raise money for public financing of elections.

“We’re dealing with a situation where no matter what issue you care about — whether it’s the environment, whether it’s health care, whether it’s the deficit, whether it’s taxes, virtually every single issue — it’s running up against the fact that the ultimate power brokers in Washington and in statehouses are the people with the most money,” Silver said in an interview Thursday. “Generally, the public interest is third or fourth on the priority of most lawmakers.”

Outsize influence

The 2012 election cycle was the most expensive in history, with presidential, congressional candidates and their allies spending an estimated $6 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Trevor Potter, former FEC chairman and author of the Anti-Corruption Act, noted in an interview Thursday that only one-third of 1 percent of the entire U.S. population donated more than $200 during the 2012 election cycle. It is the small number of donors who do give more than $200 that the public should be worried about, he said.

“We’ve set up a system where Congress is worried about a specific set of people with legislation before Congress,” Potter said. “We’re trying to cut those connections.”

The flow of money this campaign season stems in large part from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision, which loosened restrictions on campaign donations from corporations, unions and other third-party interests.

Citizens United has sparked a series of counterproposals seeking to stem the tide of campaign contributions, ranging from increased disclosure requirements to a constitutional amendment seeking to limit free speech to people, not organizations.

Silver said the hope of Represent.US is to combine many of those disparate proposals. It would, for instance, require SuperPACs to abide by the same spending limits as other political action committees, which donate money on behalf of politicians or third-party interests, while barring politicians from seeking contributions from the industries they regulate. Thus, a member of the House Energy Committee would not be able to ask for donations from an oil company.

At the same time, it would offer an alternative to a constitutional amendment, Silver said, which faces a difficult approval process. Amending the Constitution requires two-thirds approval of both House and Senate, as well as three-quarters — 38 — of state legislatures or two-thirds approval from a constitutional convention of state legislatures, an option that has never been tried.

“We support a constitutional amendment,” Silver said. “But getting money out of politics is like climbing Mount Everest. If you have enough people and enough supplies, it’s probably wise to send a couple teams” to make sure one reaches the top.

Widespread support

There are several reasons to think the campaign will be successful, Silver said.

“Every single poll of the American public shows overwhelming support for getting money out of politics, not only among progressives, but moderates and conservatives,” he said.

The campaign itself reflects that diversity, with members ranging from tea party and Occupy Wall Street activists to liberal intellectuals and former members of President George W. Bush’s administration, Silver said.

Second, the campaign aims to build enough public support to force congressional action, he said. Represent.Us hopes to garner one million citizen co-sponsors before introducing the legislation to Congress. But Silver said the campaign isn’t seeking congressional allies — yet.

“If you do that too early, what happens is you get a few members of Congress who latch onto this thing and say, ‘this is my bill.’ Suddenly, it becomes the Sarbanes bill, the King bill or whoever,” Silver said. “It falls prey to the parochial partisan politics of the Hill, which we want nothing to do with. Nobody can call this bill their own other than the American people, for at least a year.”

But when the bill is introduced in Congress, Represent.Us will track who supports it and who doesn’t, Silver said. Of those who don’t, the campaign will focus on a small number of Democrats and Republicans and work to defeat them at the polls. The hope, Silver said, is to make incumbents believe that their political survival depends on supporting the Anti-Corruption Act.

“When Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, he did it not because he wanted the EPA, but because he thought if he didn’t he wouldn’t win re-election,” Silver said. “We want to create a similar dynamic.”

The group plans to disclose all the donations it receives to further its agenda. To achieve that end, Represent.Us is launching an outreach campaign that seeks to make campaign finance reform hip — with plans for the campaign’s logo to appear on clothing lines at fashion week — while also working with activist groups, Silver said. As of Thursday afternoon, the group already boasted 289,000 citizen co-sponsors on its website.

Still, Silver acknowledged the fight does not figure to be an easy one. It could take two years or 10, he said.

Yet he can count on powerful allies like Potter, Bush strategist Mark McKinnon, Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig and Abramoff.

Abramoff was not available for an interview Thursday. But it was the former super-lobbyist who planted the seeds for the campaign, Silver said, noting that he met Abramoff through a mutual acquaintance several years back.

Abramoff, Silver said, appears motivated by a sincere desire to clear his name and “clean up the system he fell into.”

“People need to think of Jack Abramoff in the way that the FBI hires computer hackers out of prison to try and hack into national databases,” Silver said. “The genesis of this act was Jack Abramoff sitting down and literally writing down on a little notebook in front of him a list of reforms to stop himself five years prior... That’s literally how this thing started.”

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