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Wisconsin Republican Convention (copy) (copy)

U.S. Rep. Tom Petri bids farewell to his fellow Republicans Saturday at the Republican Party of Wisconsin's state convention. After 35 years in Congress, the Fond du Lac Republican said he would not run for reelection after more conservative candidates announced they were entering the race.

JEFFREY PHELPS — Associated Press

After more than three decades in Congress and three years of retirement, former U.S. Rep. Tom Petri has a new cause: fixing democracy.

Petri, a Republican who represented the state's 6th congressional district for 18 terms, is one of three Wisconsinites involved in Issue One's ReFormers Caucus, a bipartisan group of nearly 200 former members of Congress and governors pushing for strengthened campaign finance regulations and a return to bipartisanship. 

The group launched a national "Fix Politics Now" campaign last week in Philadelphia, urging congressional candidates to support measures including incentives for small-dollar campaign contributions, increased disclosure of political contributions and expenditures, banning lobbyists from contributing to or bundling for congressional campaigns and strengthening the Federal Elections Commission's ability to enforce the law. 

"Despite all its frustrations, the political process is very important and we should make it as open and fair as possible so as many people can effectively participate in it as possible," Petri said in an interview. "In a democracy you’re not always going to get your way, but you want to at least be able to have had a chance to have your say."

Members of Issue One have proposed a set of solutions they say would return the U.S. government "to the representative path the founders envisioned" by "sever(ing) the money connection between powerful private interests and our elected government." 

Their framework covers five broad themes: promoting transparency and disclosure in government and elections, increasing participation in politics, reducing pay-to-play policymaking, strengthening enforcement of campaign finance laws and improving government integrity and accountability.

At the heart of these issues is "the dysfunction of the Federal Election Commission," Petri said.

The FEC, which is charged with overseeing and regulating campaign fundraising and spending, is frequently deadlocked along party lines. Its former chairwoman described it as "worse than dysfunctional" in a 2016 interview with the New York Times

"People want to change the rules and make them fairer, but even the ones we have are not being very well administered," Petri said.

Issue One supports a bipartisan bill that would take the commission down from six commissioners to five. A commission chairperson would lead the agency for a 10-year term. 

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Petri also lamented the amount of time members of Congress must spend on fundraising, both for their own campaigns and for their party's broader efforts. For too long, Petri said, lawmakers are encouraged to raise money in order to earn choice committee assignments. He tied that trend to Republican former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Democratic former House Speaker — now Minority Leader — Nancy Pelosi, under whom committees were brought increasingly under the control of leadership. 

"For most members, that means raising money from people who have interests before the committees on which they serve, which is not a very healthy dynamic," Petri said. "That’s the system that’s being promoted by leaders in both political parties, and one of the reasons I think the public talks about 'the swamp.'"

Petri said he would like to see the government offer tax credits or rebates to small-dollar donors for their campaign contributions. Doing so would not only make politicians less reliant on a handful of large donors, it would also encourage more people to participate in politics, he said.

Petri is joined in the ReFormers Caucus by Republican former Rep. Reid Ribble, who represented Wisconsin's 8th Congressional District from 2011-2017, and Democratic former Rep. Jim Moody, who represented the state's 5th Congressional District from 1983-1993.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.