Clean Elections Solution Arrives in Congress

"Former President Bill Clinton will drop by a spinning exercise class on Thursday on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and speak briefly about health care and his wife's candidacy to more than 30 women and men wearing spandex, sweat shorts and the like. ...

"The spinners are each paying $2,300 per bike -- the maximum allowable donation to Mrs. Clinton's campaign." -- New York Times, 3/20/0

All in unison now: The whole campaign finance system is spinning out of control.

Candidates for the presidency are sized up by the media for their fundraising ability, not their ideas. To be considered a viable candidate a person will have to prove that he or she can raise $100 million by the end of this year, or be consigned to second tier status.

At the congressional level, members we elect to do the people's business are forced to do their own fundraising business first. Vulnerable Democratic members of the House, for example, were told recently that they should have $1 million in the bank by the time June 30th rolls around, more than a year and a half before their next election. That's an astounding figure -- members of Congress are raising roughly $38,000 per week every week to stay on pace.

The same story can be told about Senate races. In 2002, the average winner spent $5.4 million. Just four years later, in 2006, the average winner spent $9.7 million.

Think about the price we all pay in the lost time members of Congress spend raising money rather than solving the problems facing this country. When Congress could be wrestling with the growing threats to homeownership caused by reckless lenders, they're off courting campaign donations from the banking industry. When Congress could be addressing the serious problem of health care in this country, insurance company lobbyists and pharmaceutical executives are hosting fundraisers for key committee members.

It is an unsustainable system, and one that needs changing as soon as possible.

That's why yesterday's introduction of the bipartisan Fair Elections Now Act by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) is as timely as it is necessary. Modeled after successful "Clean Elections"-style public financing laws at the state level, the bill would level the playing field and put voters in charge.

The Fair Elections Now Act is a straightforward reform that encourages more participation from ordinary voters. Candidates who agree to strict spending limits and to take no large dollar donations can qualify for public funding by raising a specific number of small contributions -- usually five dollars -- from people in their state. Instead of raising contributions from the wealthiest of the wealthy, Senate candidates would be required to raise small contributions from a massive numbers of people back in their home district. If they're outspent by an opponent or an outside group, they can receive fair fight funds, up to a limit, to respond. Once they've qualified, their fundraising is done, and they can spend the campaign walking, talking, and listening to voters.

Arizona and Maine have seen solid success with similar systems. In Arizona, nine of the eleven statewide officeholders ran and won under a Fair Elections-style system. In Maine, 84 percent of the State Legislature did as well.

"Five years ago today, the Senate passed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms banning huge soft-money donations to political parties. Earlier this year, we passed lobbying reforms," said Senator Durbin at a press conference. "But the truth is, we can pass all the lobbying and ethics reforms in the world and it won't solve the real problem. Special interest money will always find new loopholes to work its way into campaigns until we change the system fundamentally."

Groups backing this proposal represent an unprecedented reform coalition whose members exceed 60 million Americans. And that's good, and necessary, because this is a big change for incumbent members of Congress. A major campaign is in the works, including petition drives to sign up tens of thousands of citizen co-sponsors, public education efforts through letters to the editor, and setting up scores of in-district meetings with members of Congress.

Similar legislation will be introduced by Reps. John Tierney (D-MA), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), and Todd Platts (R-PA) in the House.

At the press conference on the Senate bill, Senator Specter said, "It has been a mystery to me, and I have studied the Constitution to some substantial extent, how money can be equated with speech."

That's exactly right, Senator. Now it's time to level the playing field for candidates and voters alike.

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