Today Public Citizen joined with congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle and a broad coalition of civic groups to uproot the problem of money in politics. Senators Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) announced the introduction of the Fair Elections Now Act [listen] to establish public funds for senatorial elections. This bold and important bill would transform federal elections for the U.S. Senate from a business enterprise into a contest of ideas focused on our nation’s challenges.
It’s plain that the cost of campaigns for Senate (and all other offices) is out-of-sight. Over the last past three election cycles, the average cost of the 10 most expensive Senate races has more than doubled, from $16.9 million in 2002 to $34.9 million in 2006. This escalation in costs continues today, and candidates will have to spend more and more time trying to raise enough money to compete. Enough is enough. We cannot allow our government to keep spiraling out of the hands of ordinary Americans.
The Fair Elections Now Act would create a voluntary system through which participating candidates – those who establish their credibility by collecting enough qualifying contributions and who then pledge not to accept private contributions – would receive public funds for the primary and general elections. Participants would also be eligible for free media vouchers and discounted commercial advertising rates. The bill is patterned on successful efforts to reduce the impact of money on the election process in Arizona, Maine, and elsewhere.
Public funding of congressional elections is a huge break for the American taxpayer. 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 loopholes, special earmarks and other boondoggles that drain billions of taxpayer dollars from the Treasury.
Last year, we fought to clean up the corruption in Washington. The public took notice, and then took action, culminating on November 7, when voters chose to put an end to the culture of corruption. The new Congress is responding to the call for change by debating a variety of worthwhile ethics and lobbying reforms.
Some of these first-line improvements are expected to pass in the coming weeks – but none of these will lower our gas prices, the cost of prescription drugs or student loans – all inflated by tax-breaks and special corporate giveaways served up by lobbyists and well-heeled contributors.
The only lasting antidote to the corrupting influence that comes with privately funded elections is to publicly fund them with a system of fair and clean elections. Thanks to Senators Durbin and Specter, we are on our way to a brighter future.