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The Fair Elections Now Act

Last week, Congress took a major step forward with the introduction of the Fair Elections Now Act…

April 8, 2009

Last week, Congress took a major step forward with the intro­duc­tion of the Fair Elec­tions Now Act (FENA). Senat­ors Durbin (D-IL) and Specter (R-PA) led the charge in the Senate, while Repres­ent­at­ives Jones (R-NC) and Larson (D-CT) intro­duced the House bill. The bills’ formal intro­duc­tions triggered a flow of bi-partisan support from members of both cham­bers. Some members of Congress reflec­ted on the posit­ive exper­i­ence in their home states with volun­tary public fund­ing programs. Video of the intro­duct­ory events can be viewed here.

FENA would estab­lish a volun­tary system of “fair elec­tions” finan­cing for Senate and House primary and general elec­tions. Candid­ates who wish to parti­cip­ate must collect a certain number of qual­i­fy­ing contri­bu­tions of $100 or less to show their viab­il­ity and public support. Qual­i­fied candid­ates are provided with fund­ing suffi­cient to run a viable elec­tion campaign through a grant and addi­tional contri­bu­tions of $100 or less that are matched by the govern­ment.

One of the biggest bene­fits of such a program is that it relieves candid­ates, newcomers and incum­bents alike, from the need for incess­ant fund rais­ing, and requires them to widen their approach to reach beyond a small, wealthy portion of the elect­or­ate. As an article in The Nation recently poin­ted out, free­ing candid­ates from incess­ant fundrais­ing is espe­cially help­ful in trying times like today, when members of Congress should be able to spend their limited time focus­ing on the monu­mental economic prob­lems that face the coun­try.

FENA also would make a larger slice of the elect­or­ate relev­ant for fundrais­ing purposes, because people who can make a relat­ively modest qual­i­fy­ing contri­bu­tion will matter. As noted here, the struc­ture of FENA capit­al­izes on the small donor revolu­tion that drove Obama’s pres­id­en­tial campaign. On the day FENA was intro­duced, Senate co-spon­sor Dick Durbin observed, “The fact is that [donors] live at a differ­ent level … than most people who vote for me.”

The need for such a program for congres­sional candid­ates has never been greater, and that evid­ence is all around us in the form of a broken economy that is the result of the dele­ter­i­ous influ­ence of corpor­a­tions over the policies and laws inten­ded to govern them. Enact­ment of FENA would reduce the power­ful sway of wealthy donors and corpor­a­tions, and could lead to a new day in Amer­ican polit­ics by empower­ing citizens to assure that their concerns come first.