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Opinion

A government for the people, or a government for wealthy special interests?

The current campaign system puts the interests of the American people in the hands of wealthy special interests. Both parties should rally behind the Fair Elections Now Act, returning public elections to public ownership.

By Sherwood Boehlert / October 8, 2010



Washington

As a former Republican member of Congress who devoted 24 years of service in the People’s House, I am saddened to find that our system of campaigning for Congress today is deeply flawed and in need of major repair.

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To run for public office, good people seeking to represent their constituents on Capitol Hill must devote countless hours to the pursuit of millions of dollars in private money. To bring in the necessary cash, they must either be independently wealthy or have ready access to the wealth of others. Either way, our elected officials are at risk of no longer representing the interests of the American people.

But there is at least one bipartisan solution I know to repair our broken system, and it goes back to our most basic democratic principles: public ownership of our public elections. Congress must pass the Fair Election Now Act to curb the undue influence of special interests on candidates of both parties.

Wealthy parties fund candidates

The current, untenable situation is this: A would-be challenger must answer two simple questions before being considered a candidate for public office: “Do you have it, or can you raise it?” Only after the candidate answers in the affirmative to this question of funding, are questions of experience, integrity, and results considered by the voters.

Let me be more concrete: If recent elections are any measure, a successful Senate candidate this fall will be required to raise at least $10 million, and a successful House candidate at least $1.5 million. What’s more, the money these candidates raise does not come from the American people by-and-large, but rather from a tiny percentage of wealthy parties representing various special interests.

For incumbents, this means spending a disproportionate amount of time throughout a term in office raising money for the next election – time that should be spent doing the people’s business. My former colleagues in Congress report spending a third of their working hours or more dialing for dollars. For most challengers, this means either having a personal fortune on which to rely or having very little chance of success.

Americans know it's a broken system

And while most Americans understand this system to be badly broken already, the US Supreme Court this year ruled, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, to permit unlimited spending by corporations and unions to influence elections. Indeed, early figures show that vastly more money is being spent to influence the outcome of our elections this fall – $4.2 billion in political ad spending alone compared with just $2.1 billion in 2008, according to Borrell Associates.

Less than a third of organizations spending money on the fall elections thus far are disclosing their sources of funds, thereby denying citizens any knowledge of who is trying to influence the election.

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