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Fair Elections Now Act Would Break Special Interest Grip on Congress


March 31, 2009

Fair Elections Now Act Would Break Special Interest Grip on Congress

Wall Street Influence-Peddling Highlights Need for Sweeping Reform

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Recent revelations that AIG gave hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to the same politicians who crafted and approved the company’s $170 billion federal bailout is one of the strongest arguments for Congress to pass a set of sweeping fundraising reforms that will be introduced today, a coalition of good government groups said today.

A set of bipartisan bills, sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Reps. John Larson (D-Conn.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.), will be introduced today and announced at a news conference in the Senate Press Gallery. Called the Fair Elections Now Act, the proposal would provide qualified congressional candidates Fair Elections funding to run a viable campaign in exchange for agreeing to take no contribution larger than $100.

While recent public outrage has been focused on AIG, many people believe that such a system for elections would help stem the influence of such corporate lobbyists. A recent poll by Lake Research Partners and The Tarrance Group found that 67 percent of those surveyed support providing qualified candidates a limited amount of public funding if they agree to take no large contributions, 81 percent believe that the way elections are financed should be changed, and 79 percent see large campaign contributions as a roadblock to solving America’s economic, health, and energy problems.

State success with similar laws has also demonstrated that a more diverse pool of candidates can run under a system like Fair Elections, turning elections into a contest of ideas, rather than a competition to see who can raise the most money from corporate donors, said members of The Fair Elections Now Coalition, which includes the Brennan Center for Justice, Change Congress, Common Cause, Democracy Matters, Public Campaign, Public Citizen and U.S. PIRG.

“This legislation will ensure that members of Congress spend more time solving the nation’s problems, not chasing after campaign contributions from lobbyists and corporate special interests,” said David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “It will make a landmark shift in the way business is done in Washington – and that could hardly come at a more critical time.”

“Americans are tired of their elected representatives being indebted to the wealthy donors and special interests who paid for their campaigns,” said Bob Edgar, president and CEO of Common Cause. “This bill would go a long ways toward dramatically changing that system and put the public’s interest first.”

During the 2008 election cycle, AIG made more than $644,000 in contributions to congressional and presidential candidates, political action committees and the Democratic and Republican parties. The company is hardly alone in spending large sums to curry favor in Congress – the financial services industry contributed $460 million to congressional and presidential candidates in 2008. Other sectors, such as the oil, health care and auto industries, also have spent millions to influence policy and legislation.

“U.S. citizens are now keenly aware of the corrupting influence of money, and that the name of the game in politics today is ‘pay-to-play,’ ” said Lisa Gilbert, U.S.PIRG’s Democracy Advocate. “It’s time for a system that elevates the voices of ordinary constituents over the AIGs of the world, and makes sure that politicians listen.”

Under the proposal, congressional candidates could qualify for public money from a Fair Elections fund for their primary and general elections by raising a large number of small contributions from their home states. They then could raise contributions of up to $100, which would be matched on a four-to-one basis up to a certain point. Before receiving Fair Elections funds, candidates would agree not to accept large contributions of more than $100.

“Already, the Change Congress donor strike has withheld over $1.1 million from members of Congress who aren’t yet supporters of this key reform proposal,” said Lawrence Lessig, co-founder of Change Congress and a law professor at Stanford University. “We’ll continue to put pressure on Congress until they replace our current system of special-interest-funded elections with a new system of citizen-funded elections.”

The Fair Elections Now Act is modeled after elements of successful state programs in Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, North Carolina and elsewhere.

“Clean Elections have been very successful in the over 12 years they have been working in states. Candidates love the system because they can spend time talking with their constituents instead of attending big lobbyist fundraisers,” said Joan Mandle, executive director of Democracy Matters. “And they can be responsive to the needs of the people they represent once they are elected, instead of having to ‘pay to play’ by voting for tax breaks and other advantages for big corporations.”

Added Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of Public Campaign, “The Fair Elections Now model systems in the states have allowed new people with fresh ideas an opportunity to win office. No longer do lawmakers in these states have to choose between the people who give them campaign money and the voters they were elected to serve. This proven model offers an alternative to kind of pay-to-play politics we can’t afford as Congress deals with the economic crisis and other pressing problems.”

“Congress is facing a number of enormous challenges, including the collapse of our financial institutions and its impact on Main Street. Strong oversight and bold solutions are needed today more than ever. The Fair Elections system would allow members of Congress to act in the interest of the country rather than contributors,” said Laura MacCleery, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Additional information will be available at http://www.fairelectionsnow.org, including polling information, a bill summary, and facts and figures about money in recent elections. You can find out more about the groups in the Fair Elections Now coalition by visiting each group’s website.