Ms. Speaker, After 100 Hours, Let's Enact "Democracy Funding" of Campaigns

By Mark Green, Commentary

Dear Nancy,

Thanks for the book jacket quote agreeing that we're "Losing our Democracy." Hence this suggestion.

The tone and content of Six in '06 is a great gimmick, and I mean that in a good way. But if restricting lobbyists is important to liberate Congress from big interests, there's one reform that's essential -- campaign finance reform.

Ultimately, the only way to stop Congress from continuing to be a "democracy-free zone" (House Rules Chair Louise Slaughter) and a "plantation" (Senator Hillary Clinton) - the only way to enact big ideas like an Apollo Project for energy and universal health care - is to replace the private funding of elections with the public funding of elections.

Otherwise your 100 Hours program may be your high point, not your starting point.

The evidence that "money shouts" is mountainous: 94% of the time, the bigger spending congressional candidate wins. The average price of a House seat rose from $87,000 in 1976 to $1 million in 2006. There are now more blue-collar and middle-class members of the Russian legislature than the American legislature.

Madame Speaker, that's embarrassing!

As money metastasizes through the political process, the erosion of our democracy should be evident to left and right alike:

*Special Interests Get Special Treatment. While Members public and indignantly deny that big contributions often come with strings attached, all privately concede the obvious mutual shakedown - or as one Western Senator told me, "Senators are human calculators who can weigh how much money every vote will cost them." The access that money buys, of course, doesn't guarantee legislative success, but the lack of it probably assures failure.

*Fund-raising is a time-thief. Imagine if someone kidnapped all candidates for state and federal office for half of each day. The story would be bigger than Jack Abramoff, and would surely lead to calls for tougher penalties against political kidnapping. Well, there is such a culprit. It's the current system of financing political campaigns, which requires officeholders in election years to spend half their time calling and lunching not merely to raise enough money but to raise far more than any rival. Or as Mark Twain said of bourbon, "too much is not enough." (Please don't take that personally, but, as a mega-fundraiser in your political career, you know that to be the case.)

So although issues like terrorism, health care and pollution absorb far more public attention, the scandal of a Congress for Sale is the most urgent domestic problem in America today. Notwithstanding the best of your intentions, how can we produce smarter defense policy, energy policy and health care policy if arms contractors, oil and gas firms and HMOs and hospitals have a hammerlock on the committees charged with considering reforms? The offenders are not corrupt candidates but a corrupt system that coerces good people to take tainted money.

As Senator Dick Durbin drafts a new proposal for in the 110th Congress, our federal and state governments need a public funding law for public elections. The rationale is simple: if, say, 10 special interests bundle $50,000 each for a congressperson, they can own him or her; if instead 10,000 taxpayers give $50 each in public funds, we own him or her.

"Democracy Funding" could follow either the New York City or the Arizona model. Under the first, 4-1 matching grants are made for all gifts up to $250 from people who can vote for the candidate (so a $25 gift becomes $125); under the second, after a candidate crosses a certain threshold - say raising $10 from each of 1000 people - he or she receives all subsequent funding up to a specified ceiling from the public treasury, perhaps paid for by a "democracy fee" imposed on registered lobbyists, political consultants and TV advertisers.

Democracy Funding largely avoids First Amendment problems since it increases speech instead of significantly limiting it - and majorities of 70% support it. As for the fretting of the George Will's that a billionaire might god-forbid be inhibited from giving or spending even more money for their favored candidates, exactly how does it advance First Amendment values to allow a few very wealthy people or interests to spend millions of dollars to drown out the voices and contributions of millions of average citizens?


See the article on Huffington Post website



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