Bailouts for Politicians’ Is a Plus for Democracy in the United States

Posted August 5, 2009 at 3:41pm

It has been called “welfare for politicians,— a “restriction of speech and association rights,— and an “impressive failure— in the states (Bailing Out Politicians Won’t Improve Politics, Aug. 4).

Never mind that such critiques are unencumbered by actual knowledge of the bill or its documented effects in the states, there is good reason to believe that “bailouts for politicians— may be the last best hope we have for a sounder democracy.

The Fair Elections Now Act, introduced this spring by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Reps. John Larson (D-Conn.) and Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.), is worth the serious consideration of Congress and the American people for three reasons.

First, unlike generations of campaign reforms gone by, it fundamentally addresses the source of political cash and offers a broad-based alternative to special-interest-funded campaigns.

Second, it cherishes and expands First Amendment free speech by enabling more voices to enter the political debate without added restrictions.

Third, it has a proven track record of success in the states where it is law.

It’s little surprise that past reforms have failed to undo the pattern of pay-to-play painfully on display in today’s health care and energy debates.

For more than a century, we have increasingly regulated the “when— and “how— of private money in campaigns, while leaving intact the source: less than 1 percent of (interested) Americans who continue to provide the bulk of campaign funds.

It doesn’t take a constitutional scholar to see the conflict of interest inherent in a system where politicians take private contributions from the very interests they oversee.

Fair elections legislation radically expands the “where— of political cash by replacing a handful of big bundlers with thousands of small contributors and matching public funds.

Under the proposed legislation, would-be fair elections candidates must first gather at least 1,500 donations totaling $50,000 in increments of $100 or less from the voters of their state (as many as 16,000 donations in Texas or New York).

That is a tall order for the “inept, lazy or unappealing candidates— opponents predict, even as it provides a new way in for serious challengers who may not have access to networks of wealthy donors.

Once qualified, candidates receive an initial public match, supplemented by additional matching funds on every in-state donation they raise, up to a competitive max.

After public funds cap out, the candidate is still free to dial for $100 checks, making the bean suppers and neighborhood picnics the new fundraising venues of choice, in place of K Street soirees.

The result is a voluntary program that cherishes the First Amendment and has garnered repeated sanction in the courts.

Instead of limiting how nonparticipating candidates and independent groups spend money on political speech, fair elections proactively expands speech by giving more candidates and small contributors a meaningful entry into the political debate.

Call it the “more speech— solution to the problem of free speech in campaign finance regulation.

Finally, experience with fair elections in states like Arizona, Connecticut and Maine has shown that large majorities of candidates willingly forgo the big-money game and the countless fundraising hours it demands when presented with a viable small-donor alternative.

A few hard facts on Arizona — as disregarded by the critics — are in order.

Since the start of the Arizona law in 2000, the number of candidates for state office has increased an average of 15 percent over the previous election, with a drop in uncontested races.

Incumbent re-election rates have fallen precipitously from 98 percent in 1998 to less than 70 percent in subsequent elections, 6 points below the national average.

Meanwhile voter participation rose more than 10 percent and has continued to outpace the national rate in each successive election. And with more candidates from diverse backgrounds engaging thousands of new small donors, the percentage of total contributions over $250 or more has fallen by more than half to around 15 percent today.

“Bailouts for politicians— they may be to the critics, but for a few bucks per citizen per year, fair elections funding of Congressional campaigns seems like a small price to pay to ensure that we, the people, own our elected representatives.

Daniel Weeks is president of Americans for Campaign Reform, a bipartisan group chaired by former Sens. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) and Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) that advocates for fair elections.