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Why Washington Isn’t Working for the American People

Bob Kerrey President of The New School Posted: 04/11/11 06:45 PM ET

Here’s one piece of news that won’t take anyone by surprise: Congress is failing to solve the difficult challenges facing our country. Healthcare costs are choking the federal budget. Our reliance on foreign oil is perilous to our national security. We continue to spend precious resources on military weapons the Pentagon doesn’t want. And our schools are failing to offer the quality education that every American child deserves.

The real story, of course, is why?

There are no easy answers in politics. But I would submit that one fundamental reason for Washington’s continued failure to respond to the looming challenges we face is that our elected leaders are hamstrung by the special interests who fund their campaigns. Our leaders have become paralyzed by the flood of money showered on them by a small minority of self-interested contributors who have the means and incentive to control how Congress does business.

In 2010, less than one half of one percent of Americans were responsible for 80 percent of all contributions made to candidates for federal office. A closer look at the numbers is even more sobering. Consider that the healthcare industry contributed $825 million to candidates for federal office from 1990-2008. Or that campaign contributions from Wall Street increased five-fold from $60 million in 1990 to $311 million in 2008. Or that the energy industry has spent $500 million in campaign contributions since 1990.

Consider the battle to rein in the federal deficit. No wonder Congress is unwilling to enact tax increases for the wealthy. No wonder military spending cuts don’t get discussed. No wonder the insurance companies continue to shape the healthcare debate. That’s where the money comes from that fuels the campaigns for federal office.

It’s called pay-to-play, and it’s the oldest game in the book.

But blaming Members of Congress is too easy. Consider the pressures they face. In 2010, it cost incumbents more than $9 million on average to run a successful Senate campaign and almost $1.6 million to win the average House seat. Unless they are independently wealthy, Members of Congress really don’t have a choice but to solicit and accept campaign contributions from anyone willing to fund their campaigns — even if those very donors have business before them.

And, no matter how you look at it, raising that much money is a huge distraction from doing the job they came to Washington to do. Members of Congress report spending as much as a third of their time raising money for their reelection. This is time that they should be devoting to representing their constituents and running our country.

It’s a case of good people caught in a very broken system. Until Congress changes the way we fund Congressional elections, our government will continue to operate under the influence of special interests.

It’s time candidates for Congress got to choose between big money from special interests and citizen-funded elections. That choice is the Fair Elections Now Act, newly-introduced legislation that would match small donations from constituents with public funds, ensuring that any candidate who foregoes large donations from special interests has enough money to run a competitive campaign. I predict that candidates will embrace this choice when it is law. And survey after survey shows that voters will embrace candidates who opt for small donor-driven public funding when they see the emphasis shift from the deep pockets of special interests to the small contributions from a candidate’s own constituents.

Past attempts at campaign finance reform have fallen short because they have relied on placing limits and restrictions on campaign donations. This strategy has been unsuccessful because, time after time, the restrictions that are put in place are simply avoided by adept legal maneuvering. Put a barrier on one type of contribution, and the money inevitably finds a new way into campaign coffers. The Supreme Court has also repeatedly declared that restrictions on campaign contributions are a violation of our First Amendment.

The Fair Elections Now Act is different. It won’t restrict free speech. In fact it encourages more speech by giving worthy candidates a greater opportunity to be heard. And since accepting public funds is a voluntary option, anyone running for office will still be able to run the “old-fashioned way,” accepting contributions from anywhere and anyone.

Fair Elections will not place restrictions on those who opt to fund their campaign the traditional way because it doesn’t have to. If a publicly funded candidate can earn enough in matching funds to run a competitive race, it doesn’t matter if any of her opponents spend significantly more. A careful study of election history shows that you can lose a race by not having enough money, but you can’t win a race solely by spending your way into office. In other words, the determining factor isn’t whether candidates spend the most money but whether they have enough money to get their message out to the voters.

Public Funding is not some experimental political science theory. Public funding laws have proven themselves in seven states, as well as in New York City and many other municipalities, and they are standard practice in virtually every other democracy on earth.

It’s time Americans stood up and demanded a Congress that works for the people, not special interests, through campaign finance reform.

Former Senator Bob Kerrey is co-chair of the bipartisan group Americans for Campaign Reform, along with former Senators Bill Bradley, Warren Rudman, and Alan Simpson.

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