Last fall we witnessed the most expensive midterm election in United States history, at a cost of nearly $4 billion. That total was twice the amount spent on congressional races a decade ago and nearly three times the amount spent when I left the U.S. Senate in 1992. Now, as Governor Roemer knows all too well, my home state of New Hampshire is gearing up for another presidential election. One can only speculate how much will be spent between now and November of 2012.
But put such figures aside and consider the real effects of billion-dollar campaigns on governance. For incumbent U.S. Senators or Representatives to raise the money it now takes to run a viable campaign ($9.2 million for Senate and $1.6 million for the House, on average), they must devote a third or half their time these next eighteen months to raising private money. Thatis precious time spent away from their constituents, away from studying the issues that come before them in Congress, away from forging common ground with their colleagues across the aisle.
Moreover, given the way our political system works, our elected representatives have little reason to spend more time with ordinary constituents. More than 90 percent of their funding comes from wealthy donors in amounts larger than $200 apiece. Lobbyists and other special interests based in Washington, D.C., gave more money to congressional candidates than the total amount contributed in 32 states combined. Our representatives face an endless barrage of fundraisers, “meet and greet” sessions with special interest donors, and countless hours of “call time” to party donor lists.
The sad irony is that while candidates will be devoting the lion’s share of their time to dialing for special-interest dollars for the 2012 election, the defining issue of how we fund campaigns in America is likely to get overlooked in their platforms.
That is, with the exception of a few courageous candidates like Buddy Roemer. I wish I could disagree with him when he says that Congress is no longer free to lead and that our nation will remain unable to solve a whole host of pressing problems until we stop the corrosive influence of special interest money on our politics. But I can’t.
Candidates who say no to special-interest money need access to alternative sources.
I have long believed that countering this undue influence is one of the most pressing challenges we face. That is why I joined my bipartisan former colleagues Senators Bill Bradley, Bob Kerrey, and Alan Simpson in leading Americans for Campaign Reform, to put this issue in the forefront of our public dialogue.
We have all seen how the influx of special-interest contributions distorts our nation’s agenda, undermines the public trust, and limits accountability in Washington. The only way I know to resolve this problem is through citizen-funded elections, as proposed by the Fair Elections Now Act, which has been reintroduced in Congress but has yet to win a vote. We must change the source of campaign money by ensuring that candidates who say no to special-interest money and demonstrate broad-based public support by raising small donations from their constituents, have access to sufficient funding to mount a credible campaign.
This goal would be accomplished by matching small in-state donations with public funds. Such a system would, in turn, provide a powerful incentive for citizens to participate as small-donor stakeholders in campaigns and encouraging new candidates to run for public office, thereby increasing political participation and competition.
Fair Elections is consistent with the First Amendment. It cherishes political speech by empowering more voices, rather than regulating them. It has been upheld as constitutional in the courts. And in eight states, from Arizona to Maine, Fair Elections–based systems are already ushering in a new kind of politics: citizens from diverse backgrounds are able to step forward and run for public office, since money is no longer a precondition for success.
The need for Fair Elections has never been greater than it is today. As the 2012 election gets underway, it is important that we continue to urge reform in our political debate and build bipartisan support. Governor Roemer has already begun that effort and other courageous candidates should join him in the fight. Indeed, our nation’s ability to face its many daunting challenges depends on solving this one.