The 2008 elections were the most expensive
in history, costing a record $5.3 billion. Although the next election is twenty months away, the pressure to raise even more money for 2010 is already bearing down on incumbents. The economic crisis demands immediate and effective Congressional action, yet at this critical moment our politicians are being distracted by the need to fill their campaign war chests. Vulnerable House freshmen have been told by their party’s campaign leaders to put $1 million in the bank before their first year is done. That’s $20,000 each week without letup.

Fortunately, there’s an alternative. Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin, Senate assistant majority leader, and Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter are introducing the Fair Elections Now Act, a measure that would turn the campaign fundraising system upside down. Set to move forward in the House are Democratic Caucus chair John Larson of Connecticut and North Carolina Republican Walter Jones, the lead sponsors of the Senate bill’s companion measure. With powerful backers from the majority party leading the fight, a friend in the White House and an angry public demanding action, the moment is ripe for a major structural reform that changes whose voices are heard in Washington.

Senator Durbin, known for his pragmatic progressivism, has termed the campaign finance system “unsustainable.” As fundraising demands have steadily increased, lawmakers have spent more time dialing up well-heeled donors, the vast majority of whom live nowhere near the lawmakers’ districts, and less time gaining in-depth understanding of leading issues, crafting effective legislation with their colleagues or listening to their constituents.

Under Fair Elections, the rules are reversed. The measure would require Congressional candidates to seek support from constituents back home, not from those in Washington or in wealthy enclaves around the country. Participants would prove their viability by gathering large numbers of local supporters, not a large amount of money from the political class. House candidates who raise 1,500 small contributions from people in their state would qualify for a grant large enough to run a competitive campaign. Senate candidates would qualify by raising a specific number of contributions, determined by a formula that takes into account the number of Congressional districts in their state. The more populous the state, the higher the initial grant. If candidates want additional funds to address independent expenditures against them or to keep pace with a well-financed opponent, they can continue to raise donations of $100 or less, which are matched four times over with public money, up to a ceiling.

The proposal–modeled on elements of successful systems in Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, North Carolina and elsewhere–has profound implications for political organizing. For voters of average means, the benefits are compelling. Their small check, whether it’s $10, $25 or $50, would be essential to a candidate’s success. No longer would they worry that their elected officials are indebted to deep-pocket funders with interests entirely separate from their own. Community leaders with strong grassroots support would become more important and would help redefine the pool of potential candidates. The bill would create tremendous incentives for lawmakers to maintain a dialogue with their constituents; it would encourage participation by new faces in the electoral process and give citizens the ability to hold lawmakers accountable, even in heavily gerrymandered districts.

Fair Elections would be attractive to incumbents as well, in two ways. First, the Capitol Hill fundraising grind would be replaced by increased contact with constituents. Second, the questions about conflicts of interest that inevitably follow big-money fundraising would disappear.

Supporters of Fair Elections will likely find a strong ally in the president. As a senator, Barack Obama was the first co-sponsor of the 2007 version of the Durbin-Specter bill. His extraordinary success in raising small donations during the 2008 campaign demonstrated the possibility of a fundraising system that puts regular people ahead of inside-the-Beltway special interests. Now, as he presses forward with an expansive agenda for change, he could well be a leading beneficiary of a policy that would undercut the moneyed opposition to many of his proposals while re-energizing grassroots organizing.

The most critical matter before Congress and the White House is the economy, but other pressing issues demand attention as well: healthcare, energy, the global climate crisis, tax policy and government spending decisions. Without exception, these are concerns over which longstanding vested interests stand to gain or lose hundreds of billions of dollars. As the Obama administration and Congressional leaders grapple to find a delicate balance between quick fixes and savvy long-term policies–with a dose of smart politics–campaign donors have a heavy thumb on the scale. Over the past two decades the financial sector has invested more than $5 billion in lobbying and campaign contributions to both parties, paying out the largest amount ever in the 2008 cycle. Energy interests and the medical industries have not been far behind, spending $455 million and $784 million, respectively, advancing their bottom-line interests over the same period.

The fierce policy battles ahead in Congress will draw clear lines between the narrow concerns of big contributors opposed to change and policy solutions that serve the broad public interest. The Fair Elections bill, a bold initiative for ordinary citizens, offers a way out for lawmakers who for too long have been caught between the campaign money chase and the desire to serve their constituents. More important, it will increase voters’ say over decisions that will have enormous consequences for their lives and for generations to come. In a democracy, we should demand no less.

Nick Nyhart and David Donnelly

Nick Nyhart is president and CEO of Public Campaign. David Donnelly is national campaigns director of Public Campaign Action Fund.