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Tallahassee – The time is right to implement the public funding of congressional campaigns, thereby making Congress more accountable to voters, according to a report released today by a coalition of public interest groups.
The groups – the Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause, Democracy Matters, Public Campaign, Public Citizen and U.S. PIRG – are championing the bipartisan Fair Elections Now Act for full funding of elections recently introduced in the U.S. Senate by Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and pointing to successful similar systems in Maine and Arizona for statewide and legislative elections as models for how a national system could work and the benefits it would produce.
“Fair Elections – systems with full public financing of elections – would help improve the openness, honesty, and accountability of government,” the report states. “They would also free public officials to respond to the interests of voters without worrying about hurting their ability to raise money from deep-pocketed donors.”
The cost of congressional campaigns has skyrocketed, from an average of about $87,000 spent for successful House elections in 1976 (about $308,000 in 2006 dollars) to an average of $1.3 million spent on winning campaigns in 2006. Successful Senate candidates in 1976 spent an average of $609,000 (about $2.2 million in 2006 dollars), and in 2006, the average Senate winner spent an astonishing $9.6 million.
Starting the day after they are elected, House members must begin raising more than $1,000 a day to amass large enough war chests to wage their next campaign, while senators must raise more than $3,000 per day. A system of public funding would end the money race and allow elected representatives to focus on doing the people’s work rather than fundraising. It would encourage a more diverse pool of candidates to run, including ordinary citizens who are currently shut out because of the prohibitively high cost of elections. Ultimately, it would make elections contests of ideas rather than dollars.
The report highlights the six pillars of Fair Elections systems: 1) Candidates seeking public funding collect “seed money” to initiate the campaign; 2) they then collect a set number of qualifying contributions in small amounts, such as $5, to show they have significant public support; 3) candidates who qualify agree to abide by spending limits and not to accept additional contributions or spend personal money on campaigns; 4) the systems are voluntary; 5) participating candidates comply with simple rules about how the money is spent, including accounting for all expenditures; and 6) participating candidates receive “Fair Fight” funds up to a predetermined limit if a non-participating opponent or third party outspends them.
The cost of a full congressional Fair Elections system is less than one twenty-fifth of one percent (0.04 percent) of President Bush’s proposed 2008 budget, which totals almost $3 trillion. It would be a bargain for the American taxpayer, accruing enormous savings by reducing wasteful expenditures such as earmarks arranged by lobbyists. These earmarks totaled $64 billion in 2006 alone and included wasted money on pet projects such as the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska and Teapot Museum in North Carolina.
The systems in place in Maine and Arizona are extremely popular with both voters and candidates, and other states such as Maryland are considering implementing public funding for state elections. The report also points to 2006 national polling data showing that Democratic, Republican and independent voters all support a Fair Elections system for congressional races. Nearly 75 percent of respondents – including 80 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of Republicans – said that they support a voluntary public funding system.
In the same year, public approval of Congress plunged to historic depths. The spectacle of members of Congress being indicted and put behind bars as a result of widening lobbying scandals was enough to shake public confidence in the current system and result in the first change in leadership in both houses in more than a decade. Energized voters elected 109 candidates, including 21 newly elected members of Congress, who either signed a Voters First pledge to publicly fund congressional elections or were co-sponsors of a federal bill to that effect in previous congressional sessions.
Recent lobbying and ethics reform bills passed in the new House and Senate will go a long way toward limiting the influence of lobbyists and making lawmakers more accountable. Nonetheless, the only way to end the corporate kickbacks and indebtedness to large campaign donors is to provide an alternative to the current money chase by implementing public funding for elections.
“A congressional Fair Elections system would be an investment in a more responsive and independent Congress,” concludes the report.
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