March 20, 2007
Fair Elections Bill Introduced by Sens. Durbin and Specter Would Restore Public’s Faith in Congress
Statement of Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen
Public Citizen applauds the bold initiative of Senators Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who today introduced the Fair Elections Now Act, a measure designed to take the corrupting and corrosive influence of money out of politics and reclaim our democracy.
In the past few years, the cost of congressional elections has skyrocketed. Lobbyists, corporations and industry interests give hundreds of millions of dollars annually to campaigns and expect significant favors in return for their largesse. This nexus of money and influence inevitably leads to policies that benefit those with the most access and the deepest pockets. Indeed, voters’ confidence in their elected officials reached a new low last year as we witnessed the spectacle of lawmakers indicted and later carted off to jail for taking lobbyist bribes and kickbacks.
The system under which we elect our representatives is severely broken. Members of Congress are torn between their duty to represent their constituents and the imperative to raise money for their next election. Congressional candidates are often forced to sell out to the highest bidders even before they can get into office. Recent lobbying and ethics reform bills passed in the House and Senate would go a long way toward limiting the influence of lobbyists and making lawmakers more accountable. Nonetheless, the only way to permanently drain the swamp on Capitol Hill is to eliminate the need for the money race entirely by implementing a system of public funding for elections.
The voluntary system envisioned in Senators Durbin and Specter’s bill would allow those candidates who collect enough small qualifying contributions to receive public funding for primary and general elections. In return for pledging not to accept private contributions, candidates would receive public funds and would also be eligible for discounted and free media time. Similar systems have already been extremely successful and popular in Arizona and Maine, where a new type of candidate has emerged – one beholden only to the voters and not to wealthy, corporate interests. Candidates in these states can spend time talking to constituents, rather than dialing for dollars. And fair elections give ordinary people who could not otherwise afford to run for office the chance to campaign and win.
Public funding of congressional elections would be the best deal the American taxpayer ever got. It would cost just a fraction of one percent of the annual federal budget. But it would produce lawmakers who would not feel obligated to repay donors with costly tax breaks, special earmarks and other boondoggles that drain billions of taxpayer dollars from the Treasury. Fair Elections also would restore the public’s trust in their elected representatives. We put our full support behind this bill.