Kerrey: Time for a Campaign Finance Transplant

Posted April 30, 2010 at 5:51pm

This week, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) are expected to introduce new campaign finance regulations aimed at blunting the worst effects of the recent Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Their proposal would — in their own words — “patch the dam” of unlimited corporate spending unleashed by the court by strengthening disclosure and disclaimer requirements, restricting foreign-owned entities and government contractors from spending in elections, and guaranteeing ad space to candidates at the lowest rates.

[IMGCAP(1)]I’m hopeful that these measures will soften the blow if the Congress can stand up quickly and pass them into law. But let me be clear: I believe that we must do a lot more than merely restore the pre-Citizens United status quo if we are to bring accountability to Washington and begin to restore the public’s trust.

The corrupting influence of big money in politics did not begin with the Supreme Court ruling. For years, we’ve been applying Band-Aids to a system of special-interest-funded elections that’s rotten at the core. New limits will not change the fact that politicians continue to rely on millions of dollars from Wall Street banks, pharmaceutical companies, Big Oil, labor unions and other wealthy interests to run for re-election.

Last year, while millions of Americans endured layoffs, pay cuts and slashed benefits, special interest groups spent a record $3.46 billion on lobbying Washington, an increase of 240 percent over a decade ago. It’s little wonder that 80 percent of the American people believe Congress works for big donors, not for them, and public faith in the institution is at an all-time low.

It’s time we stop patching the leaks and start rebuilding the dam by changing the very source of campaign cash: Instead of wealthy special interests funding campaigns, it’s time we move to small donations from ordinary citizens and matching federal funds. The Fair Elections Now Act, introduced by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Reps. John Larson (D-Conn.) and Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.), would do just that. It’s picked up some 165 co-sponsors so far — Members of Congress in both parties who are tired of spending countless hours dialing for dollars.

Under a “Fair Elections” system, candidates who say “no” to special interest contributions in favor of small in-state donations are given a real shot at public office. Instead of relying on a tiny fraction of wealthy Americans, who now provide the lion’s share of campaign cash, Fair Elections candidates would go straight to the voters in their state to raise thousands of donations of $100 or less. Once they’ve demonstrated their credibility with the voters, they would be eligible to receive 4:1 federal matching funds, raised through a deficit-neutral fee on major government contractors.

Citizen-funded Fair Elections are a proven alternative to the big money game, with eight states and more than a dozen cities from Los Angeles to Maine already providing qualified candidates with limited public funds in place of large donations; the overwhelming majority of candidates in these cities and states are voluntarily choosing to take part. Nationwide, 67 percent of Americans across the political spectrum favor citizen-funded elections while only 20 percent oppose them, according to recent bipartisan polls.

As Congress considers an incremental fix to the Citizens United ruling, I urge all Americans to remind their elected Representatives that the status quo isn’t good enough. Corporations and wealthy interests dominated the political debate long before the Supreme Court told us they have the same rights as people under the First Amendment. Let’s not waste this opportunity to enact the only real reform I know that can stand up to big money in politics: citizen-funded Fair Elections.

Former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) chairs the bipartisan citizen initiative Americans for Campaign Reform (youstreet.org) along with former Sens. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) and Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.).