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.

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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.

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.

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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.

A bipartisan solution

As an important first step in reclaiming our elections and curbing the undue influence of special interests on our candidates, it is high time that Congress passed the Fair Elections Now Act, introduced in the House by my former colleagues Democrat John Larson of Connecticut and Republican Walter Jones of North Carolina.

Modeled after successful Fair Elections programs in eight states, the proposed law would require that participating candidates turn down special interest money and accept only $100-or-less donations from their constituents. Candidates who reach a qualifying threshold of 1,500 in-state donations would then be eligible to receive sufficient matching funds to run a serious campaign.

This would dramatically reduce the influence of special interests, including unions and corporations. And Fair Elections would open the election process to many more Americans who currently have no opportunity to seek public office for lack of funds.

Public funding removes undue influence

Because of the recession and the growth of government, citizens are understandably concerned about the cost of funding Fair Elections. The truth is, Fair Elections would actually save our government billions of dollars every year. The Cato Institute has tracked some $87 billion in annual subsidies to corporations.

If we could cut this corporate welfare merely in half by eliminating the payback for campaign contributions, we would save almost $45 billion each year. By comparison, we can fund Fair Elections for Congress for under $1 billion per year.

As a lifelong Republican, I see no reason why the Fair Elections Now Act should not receive support from both Republicans and Democrats. Voters of all stripes understand that money has an undue effect on who runs for office, who gets elected, and which legislation gets passed.

That is an unacceptable reality for the body I once proudly served. Recent Gallup polls show only 11 percent of Americans have confidence in Congress – reinforcing the consequences of this troubled reality.

Return the government to the people

This popular demand for change of the way business gets done in Washington is what Americans have in common in this election. It’s where MoveOn.org and the Tea Party can agree. And it’s what Republicans, Democrats, and Independents will be looking for when they cast their ballots a month from today.

To repair our badly broken campaign finance system and restore a government that is – in the words of Abraham Lincoln – of, by, and for the people, Congress should take campaigns out of the hands of special interests by passing Fair Elections.

Sherwood Boehlert is a former Republican member of congress from New York and a member of Americans for Campaign Reform.

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