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.