November 11, 2007
Changing the way U.S. Senate campaigns are paid for
In a rare candid moment a U.S. Senator told a group of constituents that he wished he could spend more time on legislative matters — he felt he had to spend way too much time doing fundraising. So instead of being able to devote his attention to the job the voters had sent him to Washington to do, he had to allocate a significant chunk of time to dialing for dollars or attending fundraising events. This Senator said he would favor public financing of campaigns — so he could spend more time on lawmaking and less on seeking cash for the next campaign.
The good news is that Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) has introduced S. 1285, a bill that looks like the dream bill for senators like the one described above who want to change the way Senate campaigns are financed. The Fair Elections Now Act is supported by a consortium made up of Common Cause, the Brennan Center for Justice, Democracy Matters, the Public Campaign, Public Citizen and U.S. PIRG.
While this seems to be a novel approach for U.S. Senate candidates, publicly financing of campaigns has been successfully deployed on the state level in Arizona and Maine and in municipalities like Portland, Oregon (where the catchy phrase “voter owned elections” is used to describe it).
Here is how it works (as described by the Fair Elections Now consortium):
HOW FAIR ELECTIONS WOULD WORK
The Fair Elections Now Act would create a voluntary system that gives Senate candidates the option to stop dialing for dollars and attending fundraisers, without unilaterally disarming against a well-financed opponent. For those who participate, fundraising would be limited to raising “seed money” in amounts of no more than $100 per person to pay for campaign start-up costs. In addition, participating candidates would be required to demonstrate sufficient public support to merit Fair Elections funding by raising qualifying contributions of $5 each from a minimum number of state residents (based on the population of the state). Having demonstrated their viability, they would be eligible to receive Fair Elections funds.
This legislation establishes a formula for determining the baseline level of public funding provided to qualifying candidates for the primary and general election cycles. The amount would vary based on the population of the state, with the allocation for the primary equaling two-thirds of the allocation for the general election. Participating candidates would receive higher funding if a non-participating opponent raised funds in excess of the allocation provided by the Fair Elections system or if a participating candidate was targeted by independent expenditures. The allocations would be adjusted for the cost differences in the various media markets covering each state. Participants would receive vouchers for purchasing broadcast airtime and would receive a 20% discount below the lowest unit cost on all advertising purchased near the end of the primary and general campaigns.
THE THREE STAGES OF FAIR ELECTIONS
– STAGE ONE: SEED MONEY
Before declaring an intent to run as a “Fair Elections” candidate, a U.S. Senate candidate could solicit, accept, and spend seed money contributions of up to $100 from individual contributors (but not from PACs or other special interests) living in any state. Seed money expenditures would be limited to a cap equal to $75,000 + ($7,500 x (# of Congressional districts minus 1)). Senate candidates could spend seed money for any election campaign-related expense, and any excess spending in Stage One would be deducted from the candidate’s Fair Elections allocation.
– STAGE TWO: QUALIFYING CONTRIBUTIONS
To demonstrate viability as a publicly financed candidate, a major party candidate would be required to gather a specified minimum number of qualifying contributions of exactly $5 each. The minimum number of qualifying contributions required for any particular state would be equal to 2,000 + (500 x (# of Congressional districts minus 1)). Qualifying contributions must be collected from residents in the candidate’s home state, and these contributions must be turned over to the Senate Fair Elections Fund to help finance the Fair Elections system. To protect the Fair Elections Fund from fly-by-night candidates lured by visions of free funding, independent and minor party candidates would have to raise 150% of the number of qualifying contributions that a major party candidate would be required to raise in the same election.
– STAGE THREE: ALLOCATION OF FUNDS TO QUALIFIED CANDIDATES
Qualified candidates would receive general election funding in the amount of $750,000 + ($150,000 x (# of Congressional districts minus 1)). The funds available for the primary would be equal to 67% of the general election allocation. Participants facing privately funded opponents or heavy independent expenditures would be eligible for increased dollar-for-dollar “fair fight funds” up to 200% above the base general election allocation for which they are entitled.
Publicly funded candidates would also receive one media voucher for every Congressional district in their state, with each voucher worth $100,000 towards the purchase of broadcast time.
Unfortunately the Senator who was mentioned at the beginning of this post as desiring public financing of senate campaigns is not yet a sponsor of this bill. However, in addition to Sen. Durbin, co-sponsors of the Fair Elections Now bill are Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Thomas Carper (D-DE), Russ Feingold (D-WI), Tom Harkin (D-IA), Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Barack Obama (D-IL), and Arlen Specter (R-PA).
Why are only 10 Senators sponsoring this much-needed legislation? If your Senator is not on this list, perhaps they should be asked why not and urged to add their name as co-sponsors of S. 1285. If your Senator is one of the 10 co-sponsors, make sure to communicate your appreciation for their stand against big money in politics.
The full text of S. 1285 can be found on Thomas at the following link: