Modern political campaigns in the United States are prohibitively expensive and, especially after Citizens United, much of the fighting is done in the dark. A recent Senate hearing highlighted one of the solutions to the problem of money in politics — public campaign financing.
On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights invited the Brennan Center’s Monica Youn to testify in support of the Fair Elections Now Act (FENA), a bill to give federal candidates the ability to qualify for public campaign funding. This would allow them to eschew corporate, PAC, and other special interest contributions. The bill, introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Rep. John Larson (D-CT), would require candidates seeking Fair Elections funding to demonstrate grassroots support through small donation collections proportional to the size of the candidate’s electorate. Candidates would then receive significant public funding and media vouchers, allowing them to run competitive campaigns while being able to say, “I didn’t take a dime from special interests.”
During the hearing, Senator Durbin lamented the endless hours he and his Senate colleagues spend asking donors for money and worrying about how the positions they take may influence their fundraising ability. Former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY), who also testified, echoed this sentiment, describing how “calling strangers in a rolodex” handed to him by his staff and asking for money made him feel humiliated, ashamed, and dirty. He expressed his feelings of guilt for every hour spent fundraising instead of “studying the issues of our day, engaging in dialogue and compromise with one another, or meeting and hearing from constituents.” The other senators at the hearing nodded in agreement.
In addition to the strings that are attached to many campaign contributions, the sheer amount of time and effort candidates spend raising money is staggering. As Monica described in her written testimony, “fundraising monopolizes a candidate’s time… For instance, Representative Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) reported spending nearly 20 hours a day on the phone, trying to coax donations, not from her constituents, but from wealthy out-of-state interests.” Similarly, “Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) recently estimated that, ‘[o]f any free time you have, I would say fifty percent, maybe even more,’ is spent on fundraising.”
As reported by OpenSecrets.org, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) had an interesting exchange on this topic with Cleta Mitchell, one of the other panelists who testified at the hearing.
Was Mitchell intimidated? Hardly. She and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) immediately sparred over the proper role of fund-raising by political candidates.
“There’s a difference between mixing among people—in town halls, for example—and fund-raising. You know that right?” asked Franken.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with [fund-raising]. I think to suggest otherwise is un-American,” Mitchell responded.
“I’m sorry,” the comedian-turned-politician shot back as the audience laughed. “I didn’t know I was un-American.”
Other lawmakers present expressed a definite distaste for fund-raising.
Persuading people to write a check is not what our elected officials should be focusing on. Instead, they should be working to solve the problems facing their states, our country, and our planet.
The Fair Elections Now Act provides a remedy. It allows serious candidates, with broad-based support, to run competitively against candidates financed by special interests. Public financing schemes at the state level have proven to be extremely successful and popular with voters. On a national level, the presidential public financing system has enabled candidates to translate widespread popular support into viable — and, often ultimately successful — campaigns. Since Watergate, three incumbent presidents have been defeated by challengers who benefited from the presidential public financing system, with the largest beneficiary of public financing being the insurgent candidacy of Ronald Reagan.
By providing voluntary public financing for federal congressional candidates, the Fair Elections Now Act is key to restoring accountability to American democracy. Fair Elections boosts the voices of small donors by providing public matching funds for small contributions, a system modeled on New York City’s groundbreaking and successful program. This rewards the grassroots outreach that spurs greater citizen participation, allowing candidates to rely on small individual donations, not large infusions of special interest cash.
Running competitively for federal office requires enormous sum of money. In post Citizens United America, an increasing amount of influential campaign dollars are undisclosed and spending levels overall are rising, putting even greater pressure on candidates to raise more money for their campaigns. Enacting public financing would take the pressure off of candidates to call upon wealthy out-of-state donors and special interest groups. Instead, it would allow candidates to engage directly with constituents to garner support. The Fair Elections Now Act gets our Senators and Representatives off the phone and onto the floor.
Here is video of Monica’s opening statement: