Special Interest Index Shows Need for Public Funding of Elections

Oct. 18, 2006 

Special Interest Index Shows Need for Public Funding of Elections

Statement of Joan Claybrook, Public Citizen President

Today, we are releasing a comprehensive report detailing how much money members of Congress received from special interest sources.

We tallied the amount of contributions every member of the House and Senate accepted from lobbyists, political action committees and out-of-state donors, as well as the percentage of contributions from large versus small donors.

What we found reinforces the need for public funding of elections. We found not only that members of Congress are awash in special interest money – money that means lobbyists and corporations get special access to lawmakers and special favors at the expense of the public – but that those who get the most occupy positions of power.

We put it all on the Web in an easily accessible and searchable format at www.CleanUpWashington.org/sii.

FINDINGS

Generally, we found that many of the top recipients of special interest money are in positions of power they can leverage to help out their contributors – and this often involves extracting funds from the U.S. Treasury.

The Senate members with the highest reliance are Max Baucus of Montana, the ranking member on the finance committee, and Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Senate majority leader. The most reliant House member is Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who sits on the appropriations committee.

The state with the greatest reliance on special interest money for senators is Tennessee, which is represented by Frist; for House members, it is Alaska, whose representative, Don Young, is chair of the powerful Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Those with the lowest reliance on Senate and House money are Wisconsin and Vermont.

The top Senate recipient of lobbyist money is Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, who is also on the Senate appropriations committee; the top recipient of lobbyist cash in the House is Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, who chairs the House appropriations committee.

Senator Hillary Clinton, who is eyeing a run for president, got the most out-of-state contributions of any of the senators; in the House, that distinction goes to Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, who sits on the appropriations committee.

When we looked at whether money came from big-money donors or small – by which we mean that donors gave $200 or less – we found that Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia accepted the smallest percentage of money from small donors. This is important because it is easier to get a small number of large checks from lobbyists or corporate executives than many small checks from average citizens. In the House, Rep. Henry Waxman of California received the smallest percentage of contributions from small-money donors.

Finally, when we examined PACs, we found that the top recipients were Sen. Max Baucus (R-Mont.) and Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), the Speaker of the House. Both are also the top recipients of money from business PACs, a subcategory. A breakdown of the total amounts of business PAC and labor PAC contributions received by each member is available on the Web site.

Even our conclusion about the senator least dependent on special interest money was discouraging. It’s the Senate’s second richest member, Herb Kohl, of Wisconsin – a finding that suggests that under our current system, the only way to ensure that we have the representatives who are free of the clutches of special interest money is to elect independently wealthy people.

The solution, then, is to change the system.

NEED FOR PUBLIC FUNDING

When lobbyists give members of Congress money, they expect – and often get – something in return, and lawmakers know that.    It’s one reason that Congress didn’t do anything to ease skyrocketing gas prices – most members are beholden to the oil and gas industry.  

That’s why we got Medicare prescription drug legislation that forbids the government from negotiating the lowest possible price for medications. It’s why members of Congress get a raise while the minimum wage stagnates.

And it’s why we get legislation that makes it harder for people to file for bankruptcy when they lose their livelihoods as a result of a serious illness and makes it harder for them to climb out of debt.

While the average American struggles to make ends meet, back in Washington, big business is throwing parties for lawmakers, raising money for them, even flying them to exotic getaways. In return, they get favorable legislation, tax breaks and enormous subsidies, all financed by the taxpayer.

There is a solution, and that is public funding of elections, which is also known as “clean elections.” It is already in practice successfully in several states.

Arizona and Maine have used clean elections since 2000, and the state legislature in Connecticut passed a Clean Elections bill in December 2005. North Carolina started public funding for judicial appellate races in 2004.

The benefits of public funding for congressional candidates are many: 1) more and different voices can be heard in the legislature; 2) there is less pressure on lawmakers to cater to donors; 3) lawmakers have more time to spend serving the public and speaking with constituents; and 4) there is increased public confidence in the integrity of elections and elected officials.

This system is urgently needed on the federal level, so a diversity of voices will matter on Capitol Hill and so candidates can spend less time raising money and more time serving the public.

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