Say no to special interests

Public funding of campaigns could end the stranglehold of corporate and union money on Congress

August 10, 2010|By Michael Barnes and Connie Morella

With the congressional election season ramping up for this fall, it's impossible to ignore the ugly influence that money has on our elective system. As Republican and Democratic former members of Congress, we have seen this influence firsthand.

Money severely impacts who can run for office, who gets elected and who has a seat at the table when policy is made. It casts a pall over our government that must be addressed if we are to realize our basic democratic ideal of government of, by and for the people.

The situation has spiraled out of control in recent years. In 1986, when we ran House and Senate campaigns, the average winning House campaign cost just over $400,000. In 2008, that cost was almost $1.4 million. That means that the average representative must raise more than $3,000 a day during an election year to prepare for his or her reelection — and senators now must raise more than $20,000 each day.

First, consider how much time this takes away from the job –– often as much as a third of a member's waking hours. That's precious time that could be spent doing the people's business and taking care of one's constituents.

But even more troubling is where that money comes from today. Let us state the obvious: It's all but impossible to raise the millions it takes to run for public office from your constituents alone, especially with a focus on small donations.

Instead, raising the money to run and win leaves candidates dependent on large campaign contributions from out-of-state interests. And these aren't abstract interests: Most are large corporations and unions, and in many cases, they are the very same interests with business before the committees on which their favored candidates serve.

A prime example is the energy industry. Since 2000, energy interests have contributed more than $337 million to candidates for federal office and Republican and Democratic Party organizations. Of that, more than $154 million came from oil and gas companies alone.

Even more troubling is how the lion's share of these contributions is showered on the members of the four congressional committees assigned with direct oversight over key industry issues, such as offshore drilling regulation.

During the first quarter of this year, the energy industry spent more than $3.2 million on lobbying each day that Congress was in session, for a total of $244,000 for each member of Congress. With this amount of money, it's hard not to wonder whether the wolves are guarding the sheep shed.

The time has come for Congress to take bold and decisive action to eliminate the pernicious and potentially corrupting influence that special interest money has on our political system. And there is legislation making its way through Congress right now that could make this happen.

Supported by more than 180 co-sponsors in the House and Senate, the Fair Elections Now Act would replace money from special interests with small donations from constituents matched by federal funds.

These matching funds, paid for by a fee on large-scale government contracts, would go to serious, hardworking candidates who demonstrate a broad base of public support and who say no to large donations from special interests. Because the system is voluntary, it is consistent with the First Amendment and is constitutional.

Enactment of the Fair Elections Now Act could drastically change the status quo in Washington. Americans could run for federal office even if they are not independently wealthy or do not have access to massive amounts of campaign cash. Once in office, they could devote virtually all of their time to doing the work that we elected them to do. Most important, they would be free to represent their constituents, not large corporations or unions seeking influence over the congressional agenda.

A great country deserves great leadership. The profound challenges we face demand nothing less. As former members of Congress, we are deeply concerned that the United States will not be able to meet its most pressing challenges until we free our elective system –– and our national agenda –– from the distorting influence of special-interest money.

As a Republican and Democrat, we hope partisan rancor will be put aside and the Fair Elections Now Act will be enacted into law. We shouldn't have to settle for less.

Michael Barnes, a Democrat, and Connie Morella, a Republican, are former members of Congress from Maryland and current members of Americans for Campaign Reform. They may be contacted at info@youstreet.org.

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