Apr. 2, 2007 – In response to corruption on Capitol Hill and the ballooning costs of running for federal office, public-interest groups and some lawmakers are pushing for a system of government-financed congressional election campaigns.
The Fair Elections Now Act, introduced last month by US Senators Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Arlen Specter (Râ€“Pennsylvania), would establish a program under which candidates could choose to rely on public funding of their campaigns. Representative John Tierney (Dâ€“Massachusetts) introduced a companion bill in the US House, which also has bipartisan support.
While aiming to eliminate candidatesâ€™ dependence on special interests, proponents say, the legislation would increase access to the political process, restore public confidence in the accountability of politicians, reduce the costs of elections, and enable political candidates to spend more time on policymaking and less time on fundraising.
Some critics, however, say it favors Democrats and Republicans and discriminates against minor-party and independent candidates.
Under the Senateâ€™s proposal, candidates choosing to pursue public funds would need to collect a large number of small "qualifying" contributions, for example $5 per donor, to show they have broad public support. Candidates would also promise not to use any private or personal funds, follow recordkeeping and expenditure requirements, and agree to participate in at least three debates.
Candidates would also promise not to use any private or personal funds, follow recordkeeping and expenditure requirements, and agree to participate in at least three debates.
For general elections, major-party senatorial candidates would receive a base of $750,000 plus $150,000 for each congressional district. Candidates would also receive vouchers for television and radio advertisements, and "fair fight funds" if facing off with a privately funded or minor-party candidate who has raised more money.
The bill offers lower amounts of funding for independent and third-party candidates, unless such a candidate raises 150 percent of the required qualifying contributions.
At least one minor party is opposing the Fair Elections bill. Stephen Gordon, political director for the Libertarian National Committee, said the proposal follows a history of Democrats and Republicans passing election laws that protect "their own turf."
"For instance," Gordon told The NewStandard, "most election bills are written in ways that help protect the power of the incumbency, ballot access laws being the most obvious example. They write laws that make it harder for them to have any third-party opposition. And this is yet another example; this is basically another ballot-access barrier."
Gordon said he opposes any public funding of political campaigns.
But Suzanne Novak, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said that the minor-party and independent candidate provisions reflect the US Supreme Courtâ€™s 1976 ruling that dealt with free speech and campaign contributions. The justices found that "the Constitution does not require Congress to treat all declared candidates the same for public-financing purposes."
Stephen Gordon, with the Libertarian National Committee, said the proposal follows a history of Democrats and Republicans passing election laws that protect "their own turf."
Viable minor party candidates, said Novak, would benefit greatly under the Fair Elections Now Act. "They would get a lot more money than they are currently able to raise, so they would be on a better footing to compete with major-party candidates," Novak told TNS.
Paired with bills addressing ethics and lobbying reform, said Craig Holman, campaign-finance lobbyist with Public Citizen, the measure would help take special-interest money out of elections. Holman called such controversial private funding the "real heart of the problem of corruption and scandal on Capitol Hill."
"The public is sick and tired of special-interest money just buying influence in Congress and feeling left out of the whole political process," Holman told TNS. "This will help bring regular citizens back into the political process."
Public Citizen, along with five other interest groups, released a report last week to promote the legislation. It points out that in Arizona, one of seven states using publicly-funded elections, the number of people of color running for office has increased. The report also includes data from Maine, where 80 percent of candidates in the 2006 elections used public funds.
According to a press statement from Senator Durbin, dozens of other groups are supporting the Act, including the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, US PIRG, the AFL-CIO, Sierra Club and the National Council of Churches USA.