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.