Senator Durbin's Statement on FENA for the Record

Senator Richard J. Durbin
Reintroducing the Fair Elections Now Act
Statement for the Record

March 31, 2009

MR. DURBIN.  We are facing the worst economic crisis since the great depression.  Health care costs are exploding.  Our education system is in desperate need of reform .  All while we continue to fight two wars on the other side of the globe.

At a time like this, our nation’s leaders need to be singularly focused on the challenges at hand.  Yet as Senators and Congressmen we find ourselves spending more and more of our time raising money for our own re-elections.  That means we spend less and less time focusing on our nation’s policy challenges.

In the last three election cycles, Senate candidates spent nearly $1.3 billion on their races.  This is simply unsustainable.

Unless you have enough personal wealth to pay for a campaign by yourself, you have little choice but to spend an enormous amount of your time dialing for dollars to keep up with your competitors.  If you don’t attend the nightly fundraisers and hit the phones during Power Hours, your campaign message will be drowned out by your opponent’s advertising by Election Day.  You will stand little chance of being chosen to continue to work on the challenges you came to Washington to solve.

Worse, the system we currently use to finance federal campaigns makes candidates far too reliant on the ability of wealthy donors to help raise the mountains of money necessary to compete.

The result is a public who rightly questions whether those that win elections in this system are serving ALL of their constituents and not just their wealthy donors.

We need to finance federal campaigns differently.  There has never been a more critical time for change.

That’s why today I am reintroducing the bipartisan Fair Elections Now Act with my friend Senator Specter.  I’m pleased that Congressman Larson is introducing the companion legislation in the House with Republican Congressmen Todd Platts of Pennsylvania and Walter Jones of North Carolina.

The Fair Elections Now Act would help restore public confidence in the Congressional election process by providing qualified candidates for Congress with grants, matching funds, and vouchers from the Fair Elections Fund to replace campaign fundraising that largely relies on lobbyists and other special interests.  In return, participating candidates would agree to limit their campaign spending to the amounts raised from small-dollar donors plus the amounts provided from the Fund.

Fair Elections for the Senate would be have three stages:

To participate, candidates would first need to prove their viability by raising a minimum number and amount of small-dollar qualifying contributions from in-state donors.  Once a candidate qualifies, that candidate must limit the amount raised from each donor to $100 per election.

For the primary, participants would receive a base grant that would vary in amount based on the population of the state that the candidate seeks to represent.  Participants would also receive a 4-to-1 match for small-dollar donations up to a defined matching cap.  The candidate could raise an unlimited amount of $100 contributions if needed to compete against high-spending opponents.

For the general election, qualified candidates would receive an additional grant, further small-dollar matching, and vouchers for purchasing television advertising.  The candidate could continue to raise an unlimited amount of $100 contributions if needed.

Under our plan, candidates will no longer be in the fundraising business.  Instead, candidates will be in the constituent business, regardless of whether those constituents have the wealth to attend a fundraiser or to donate more than $100 per election.  Candidates will be in the policy business, regardless of what policies are preferred by wealthy donors.

This is no naïve theory.  It a system that is already at work.  Very similar programs exist in Maine, Arizona, and elsewhere.  These programs are bringing new faces and ideas into politics and making more races more competitive.  Most importantly, candidates spend more time with constituents and in policy debates and less time with wealthy donors.

I know that some will say that the answer to this problem of time constraints is simply to remove individual contribution limits, so that with a few phone calls to billionaire donors candidates can raise all of the money that they need.  I completely disagree.  The answer is not to further concentrate influence in the hands of a smaller and smaller group of donors, but rather to remove that source of influence altogether.  That’s the only way to rebuild the trust of the American people.

Let me be clear:  I honestly believe that the overwhelming majority of the people serving in American politics are good, honest people, and I believe that Senators and Congressmen are guided by the best of intentions.  But we are nonetheless stuck in a terrible, corrupting system.  The perception is that politicians are corrupted by the big money interests… and whether that is true or not, that perception and the loss of trust that goes with it makes it incredibly difficult for the Senate to take on tough challenges and have the American public believe that what we are doing is right.

I believe that this problem is fundamental to our democracy, and we must address it.   Overwhelming numbers of Americans agree.  Recent polling shows that 69% of Democrats, 72% of Republicans, and 60% of independents supported a general description of this proposal.   The Fair Elections Now Act is supported by several good government groups, former members of Congress, business leaders, and even lobbyists.

Our nation’s leaders need to be completely focused on getting America back on track.  The Fair Elections Now Act will help.