In the aftermath of Jack Abramoff, a new clamor for clean money and clean elections can be heard nationwide. Finally, some legislators are offering more than cosmetic solutions.
In March, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) introduced the Fair Elections Now Act. Modeled after existing election-financing systems in states like Arizona and Maine, the legislation outlines a new system for financing congressional campaigns with public funds. With a proposed $2.8 billion for each two-year election cycle, Durbin’s bill aims to reward candidates who spend time with their constituents, and not golfing or dining with deep-pocketed lobbyists. In the House, Reps. John Tierney (D-Mass.) and Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) introduced a similar measure, the Clean Money Clean Elections Act (H.R. 3099), in January.
Using an array of slides, Durbin lunged into the statistics during his Senate speech introducing the legislation: 74 percent of all American voters support fair elections; in the last three election cycles, spending in Senate races has increased from approximately $300 million to more than $550 million; and only 0.25 percent of Americans contributed more than $200 in the 2006 elections.
Moreover, political TV advertising has skyrocketed from $995 million in 2002 to approximately $1.7 billion in the 2006 election cycle. Durbin fears that this “political money chase” undermines the democratic fabric of the United States.
“I used to say, ‘I don’t want a dime of federal taxpayer dollars going to some racist such as David Duke running for office,’” Durbin told his colleagues. “It was a pretty good response, but frankly, as I reflect on it now, it ignores the obvious. For every miscreant like David Duke, there are thousands of good men and women in both political parties who are forced into a system that is fundamentally corrupting.”
Durbin’s proposed legislation would allow candidates to raise “seed money” – up to $100 from individuals, but not political action committees, living in any state – to finance the startup costs of a campaign. The cap for seed money follows a set formula for every state: $75,000 + [$7,500 x (number of congressional districts minus 1)]. If a candidate exceeds this ceiling, they must refund the excess before they can qualify as a “Fair Elections” candidate.
Rather than focusing on large checks from special interest groups, Fair Elections candidates will have to procure thousands of $5 qualifying contributions (QCs) from their constituents. Determined on a state-to-state basis, the minimum number of QCs follows this equation: 2,000 + [500 x (number of congressional districts minus 1)]. Independent party candidates, however, must amass 150 percent of the QCs required of major party candidates.
Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of campaign-finance watchdog Public Campaign, argues that the Fair Elections Act will shift America’s political focus back to the public. “As we saw with the last elections, the voters are watching,” says Nyhart. “They want politicians who work for them, instead of the big check. And voters of ordinary means are more relevant in Durbin’s proposed system.”
At the same time, the Fair Elections Act is a voluntary program. As much as anyone might crusade for a universal application, the U.S. Constitution stands in the way. Vermont’s state legislature tried to impose strict limits for campaign fundraising in 1997. But last June the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 vote, ruled that political contributions are a protected form of speech, meaning any limits imposed on them violate the First Amendment.
But if candidates are free to finance their campaigns with public or private dollars, how does the Fair Elections Act stop corruption? In order to compete with privately funded competitors, qualifying candidates are eligible for “fair fight funds,” up to 200 percent more than the general election allotment. The general elections allocation is based on another state-relative formula: $750,000 + [$150,000 x (number of congressional districts minus 1)].
Nyhart believes the Fair Elections Act will make privately funded campaigns obsolete. “From a voter’s perspective, I cannot imagine supporting a candidate who would rather pursue K Street dollars than spend time getting contributions from the average citizen,” Nyhart says. “It certainly questions one’s motivation and dedication. And in the end, the campaign dollars will match up anyway.”
The act already has strong outreach support within grassroots organizations. The nonpartisan advocacy group Common Cause, for example, started StopTheMoneyChase.org for citizens to voice their support or simply learn more about the bill. Moreover, an independent poll by Lake Research Partners and Bellwether Research reports “a significant majority of voters, across party lines, support publicly funded elections.”
Despite this grassroots support, Nyhart worries that the act will have to overcome adversity before it passes. He estimates that it will go up for voting in the fall and that conservatives, led by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), will mount a tireless defense to retain or increase their political purses – with special interests groups paving the way in dollar signs.
“In last year’s elections, we heard a lot of talk about corruption and external influence,” Nyhart says. “It’s slowed down since then, so to get the necessary votes [to pass the act], the political environment has to come full circle. But the unearthing of one scandal can make a year’s progress happen in several months.”