July 8th, 2010
10:25 AM ET
12 years ago

$15 mil. push for 'Fair Elections,' critics say bill would hand lawmakers political suicide

Washington (CNN) - Congressional lawmakers are staring at the chance, as some groups believe, to free themselves from the mad dash for campaign cash and to elevate the voices of everyday Americans over special interests. Yet others believe that a congressional bill involves something so despised by Americans that, if enacted, lawmakers would be committing an act of political suicide.

On Thursday, the Public Campaign and Common Cause, two non-profits focused on campaign finance reform, are leading the launch a $15 million campaign for passage of the Fair Elections Now Act. In March of last year, the legislation was introduced by the Senate's second most powerful Democrat, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, five-term Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson, the fourth ranking Democrat in that chamber.

Yet even with such high-power backing, the legislation has not advanced far in Congress. The Public Campaign's new $15 million push hopes to change that. It will feature a television ad released Thursday, that will run in key areas. The groups are also working with organizations in 24 states to pressure on key lawmakers. The goal: a successful vote in the next few weeks on the Fair Elections Now Act.

The legislation would allow qualified candidates for federal office to receive large sums of money in the form of grants and matching funds. Supporters argue it would allow candidates to be competitive in campaigns that have increasingly grown more expensive and caused candidates to spend countless hours going after campaign funds.

"Americans would be shocked if they knew how much time Members of Congress and candidates seeking office must spend dialing for dollars and attending fundraisers," Durbin said when the bill was first introduced in 2009. "Our bipartisan bill will give candidates the opportunity to focus on dealing with our nation's problems and not chasing after campaign cash."

Supporters also believe the legislation will free candidates from relying on donations from special interests - and elevate the voices of everyday Americans over those interests.

"[Candidates] would only have to listen to their constituents when it comes to getting elected, as opposed to the special interests, the big lobbyists...in Washington," Nick Nyhart, president of The Public Campaign, told CNN.

The fair election funding system would be entirely voluntary. In order to qualify, candidates would need to raise a minimum amount: $50,000 for a House candidate and varying amounts, based on a formula, for Senate candidates. Qualified candidates would receive fair election funds for both the primary and general election, with amounts varying for House and Senate races.

Those candidates would also be eligible to receive matching funds if they continued to raise small donations from constituents in their state. For every dollar raised from those in-state contributors, the candidate would receive four dollars. There would be a cap on the amount a candidate could receive from the fair election fund. Candidates would not be allowed to accept contributions, fundraising, or bundling from PACs.

Nyhart told CNN that, along with Larson, the bill has 156 co-sponsors, which include 3 Republicans. "This bill expands free speech," Nyhart said.

The bill's detractors believe otherwise.

Congressman Dan Lungren, R-California, told CNN the Fair Elections Now Act would essentially force upon Americans something they, increasingly, do not want. Lungren is the ranking Republican on the Committee on House Administration, where the bill sits in that chamber.

"Everyday Americans have already indicated their feelings on taxpayer funding of elections. When they have had that opportunity, when it comes to presidential elections, and we have seen a precipitous drop in their support for that idea."

Lungren referred to the option for individual Americans to contribute $3 of their federal tax to the Presidential Election Campaign fund that appears on income tax return forms.

The congressman also warned of another potential problem with a fair election fund.

"How do you stop extremists, who couldn't stand on their own two feet with respect to elections, from benefitting from this kind of a program?" Lungren told CNN. "Someone would have to show me how this would not encourage that."

As an example, he cited Lyndon LaRouche, a perennial candidate for president.

"The one thing that public funding of presidential campaigns has done has encourage this guy, LaRouche, to be a presidential candidate - year after year after year after year, even when he was in prison," Lungren said.

Lungren believes the current contribution system accomplishes one goal of the proposed fair election fund.

"There are means by which people can participate, at low dollar values, and there are direct contributions to campaigns at low dollars," he said.

John Samples directs the Cato Institute's Center for Representative Government. He echoes concerns about the proposed fund, telling CNN its costs would outweigh its benefits.

"At the national levels, since this plan spends a lot of money, they've got to tax to do it. And they kind of obscure the way they get the taxes. But the taxes end up falling on taxpayers," Samples said.

He referred to the proposed funding for a fair election fund: for Senate races, a fee on large government contractors. And "for House races...ten percent of revenues generated through the auction of unused broadcast spectrum," according to the Public Campaign's website.

"In the end, the taxpayer gets the bill," Samples told CNN.

And Samples criticized the new, multi-million dollar push by the Public Campaign to convince lawmakers to pass the legislation.

Samples claimed the group is spending $15 million dollars "to get public opinion to force [lawmakers] to do something they don't want to do."

Samples noted the challenging political environment for incumbents. "These members will be voting for a system... that gives their challengers even more money."

And Samples offered his thoughts on how effective the bill's supporters will be in convincing lawmakers to vote for it.

"I suspect they're going to have a very hard time rallying public opinion to get [lawmakers] to do something that's pretty suicidal."

Filed under: Campaign finance • Congress • Elections
soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. doug

    LOL, from the party whose leader received record amounts of campaign cash from people overseas who go by the name Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

    Can't let Americans who run successful businesses to donate to a campaign but Middle-Easterners named after Disney charecters can donate how ever much they want.

    You support this if you vote Democrat!

    July 8, 2010 10:31 am at 10:31 am |
  2. awaitingliberalizationbyCNN

    On the surface this sounds pretty good, but with the SEIU controlled Dick Durbin behind it, there is something that does not smell right.

    July 8, 2010 10:34 am at 10:34 am |
  3. thor

    You can look at the individuals pushing this legislation and tell right away it 's not worth the paper it's written on.At least Spector will be gone if it where to somehow pass !!!

    July 8, 2010 10:35 am at 10:35 am |
  4. Bill

    Any lawmaker that votes AGAINST this bill is corrupt and in the pocket of special interests. With eyes wide open, let's see how they vote.

    July 8, 2010 10:47 am at 10:47 am |
  5. David LyJordan

    This is utter nonsense.

    Lawmakers are not concerned about funding of extremist candidates. They are concerned about increased competition from candidates with differing but valid points of view, who traditionally have been non-threatening due to their inability to raise enough money.

    I don't think this bill is the answer, but it's probably the closest I've seen thus far.

    Common sense says that an extremist candidate will still fail in the court of public opinion. If they are concerned about wasting taxpayer funds, then make funding contingent on the collection of signatures, and up it to an amount that indicates adequate public support. That way public funds are not being wasted on National Socialist candidates the voters will not support.

    But this is a step in the right direction, and should help independents. It's time to clean house and we need more options for potential replacements.

    July 8, 2010 10:50 am at 10:50 am |
  6. Steven A.

    "Samples claimed the group is spending $15 million dollars "to get public opinion to force [lawmakers] to do something they don't want to do."

    Aren't lawmakers elected to do what the public wants? That's democracy.

    July 8, 2010 10:54 am at 10:54 am |
  7. Chessnutz of Liverpool NY

    LOL, that is our Government folks, two SPECIAL INTEREST GROUPS are writing campaign finance reform for all Americans. This does not stop the real problem it just adds another tax to our over burden taxpayers.
    Here is the best solution only those who reside in the voter district and are eligible to vote as individuals can contribute to an election campaign to a certain limited total amount. This will eliminate the out of town deep pocket contributors who influence who is elected. No more money from wall street, unions, banking, big oil, PACs etc....
    This way the people who live in the representitive's district get true representation.

    July 8, 2010 10:57 am at 10:57 am |
  8. Sarah, the baby seal basher

    Oh my,take money out of politics,they must be heratics.What will the moneychangers in the Temple think?Gee all the poor lobbyists might have to look for a real job,just like the rightwing posters that get paid to post lies on here will have to do.hahaha

    July 8, 2010 11:13 am at 11:13 am |
  9. Scott F

    This is the only hope to save this country. We now have a system of government where the person or corporations with the most money can and do influence the outcome of elections and policy. The Supreme Couryt recently handed a bigger checkbook to the corporations. So much for the majority. It should bother everyone that 1% of the population controls 95% of the wealth. If the these 1% would spend the millions they contribute to buy politicians and influence elections to benefit themselves on the reforms that we really need as a society we would not have nearly the problems that we face
    How much more of the lies can we take? Do you really believe that corporations regulate themselves? Enron, BP, Oil Industry, Merrill Lnych, Goldman Sachs, US Surgical, It just goes on and on. Wake up America!!.

    July 8, 2010 11:16 am at 11:16 am |
  10. Teo

    This is a waste of money and effort. An easier fix would be term limits for all members of Congress. If an elected official cannot run for office again then they don't need to spend so much time fundraising for themselves. The Republican and Democratic Parties are doing a great job of distracting Americans from paying attention to the real problems with our government – that politicians who make a career out of it have no incentive to produce results for anyone but themselves.

    July 8, 2010 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  11. Rick McDaniel

    That will NEVER overcome the corruption in Washington.

    July 8, 2010 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  12. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Okay, look: I can understand "bailing-out" certain industries to keep THE COUNTRY'S ECONOMY from going down for the third and last time. However, BAILING OUT POLITICIANS????!! With MY money int he form of grants and what-have-you? Hell no!

    If the folks whose vote you want don't like you enough to contribute to your campaign, tough titties!! Why should my money go to 'level the playing field' for a candidate that I DO NOT SUPPORT?

    You knew before you started this quest for power through 'PUBLIC' office that it was going to take big bucks. If you don't have the duckets, or can't RAISE them the old-fashioned way, then get the hell out of the race, or get creative. See how the current President did it: internet and $5, $10, $25 at a time from A LOT OF US! He did not take the government hand-out.

    July 8, 2010 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  13. Mike

    No way this would happen. Politicians LOVE special interests and the extra money they bring in. If anything they'll find a way to keep getting money from companies and other special interest groups, but now more of that money will just go directly in their pockets.

    July 8, 2010 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  14. Dutch/Bad Newz, VA

    Thank you SCOTUS for rigging our elections.

    July 8, 2010 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  15. David

    try to limit special interest groups from shoving bills through congress or blocking them, sounds like the Public Campaign is doing a find job of defining how special interest groups waste money (15 million) to push a bill through that favors there goals and waste tax payers money. How about no fund raising and you simply campaign on merit and integrity? That is the whole problem when you involve money, money talks.

    July 8, 2010 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  16. Anonymous

    Until they find a way to block all outside groups form running ads, form "secret funds" that pay for attack ads, and limit the amount a candidate can take form their pocket, there will never be a good bill.
    This one appears to ADD public funds to their already healthy campaign war chests.
    Why would we want to help these people find a job? Who paid for your job hunt?
    Where is the bill calling for a set amount of air time and a set amount of print for each candidate that could be paid form a fund like this and eliminate all fundraising?

    July 8, 2010 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  17. T = too ashamed to admit to being Republican

    I don't trust a single word out of Dan Lundgren's mouth. Campaign finance reform is seriously needed. The present system of getting wined and dined by Big $ lobbyists is unsustainable and leads to virtual bribery.

    July 8, 2010 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |