Campaign Finance Challenged

Sen. Richard J. Durbin is among the sponsors who will introduce the Fair Elections Now bill this week.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin is among the sponsors who will introduce the Fair Elections Now bill this week. (Manuel Balce Ceneta - AP)
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By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 24, 2009

After the most expensive campaign cycle in U.S. history, a bipartisan group of lawmakers will introduce legislation this week to create an ambitious voluntary public campaign financing system that would ban contributions from lobbyists and place strict limits on other sources of campaign cash.

Under the proposed overhaul of campaign finance law, candidates would be prohibited from accepting donations from registered federal lobbyists but would receive public matching money for contributions from people in their communities. Advocates of the "Fair Elections Now" measure said the system would weaken the predominance of special interests in politics.

Similar proposals have failed repeatedly in Congress in recent years, but proponents said they think the moment is ripe for the legislation to pass. When he was in the Senate, President Obama co-sponsored a similar bill, and during his presidential campaign he said he supported stricter ethics and campaign finance laws. The populist furor over the bonuses paid to executives at American International Group, the bailed-out insurance giant, and reports that the struggling financial sector has been lobbying lawmakers, advocates said, created a political climate favorable to changing the law.

"Under this new system, you would feel that if you participated, your voice had a chance in the public square because it wouldn't be automatically overwhelmed by somebody with buckets of money," Sam Waterston, a "Law & Order" actor who was in Washington rallying support for the bill, said in an interview yesterday. "This is a place where everybody can put their outrage and not have to be outraged by the same things ever again," he said.

Dave Wenhold, president of the American League of Lobbyists, said his association does not have a position on the proposal, but he took issue with the charge that lobbyist influence is a problem in politics.

"The bottom line is that anybody who gives to a candidate is hoping that candidate wins and hoping that that candidate remembers that they supported them, whether it's John Q. Public in Arkansas or the American Widget Association," Wenhold said. "The same principles apply."

The Fair Elections Now bill will be introduced in Congress this week by Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), as well as Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.). Durbin said the proposal would be "hard politically," but would "restore this democracy to its basic values."

"If you really want to change Washington and you want to take special interests impact off of Capitol Hill, you have to get to the heart of the matter, and that means the way we finance campaigns," Durbin said. The proposal, he said, "would liberate incumbents from the drudgery of telephone calls and trips and raising money in ever-growing amounts to run for reelection."

If the bill becomes law, Durbin said he would opt into the public financing system. Under the proposal, House candidates would qualify for public money by raising a minimum of $50,000 from at least 1,500 people in their home states. The minimum for Senate candidates would vary by state, based on population.

Qualified House candidates would receive $900,000 in public funding, split 40 percent for the primary campaign and 60 percent for the general campaign. Senate candidates would receive $1.25 million, plus additional money based on the size of their states. For candidates in particularly competitive races or those facing self-financed opponents, the system would match donations of $100 or less from in-state contributors at a ratio of four to one, meaning $4 in public money for every $1 raised.

In addition, public funding would be used to offset the cost of media purchases for participating candidates.

"It turns the current system completely upside down," said Nick Nyhart, president and chief executive of Public Campaign, who is advocating for the legislation. "This system takes a direct attack on the bond between big campaign donors and candidates for office. This severs that bond. It means instead there's a bond between a candidate and people in their district that want to support either her or him."

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