The Influence Industry

Groups say time is now for public financing push

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By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2010

Two interest groups plan to spend as much as $15 million this year on a nationwide campaign in favor of new public-financing legislation aimed at limiting the influence of wealthy donors and large corporations in congressional races.

Common Cause and Public Campaign are making the push on behalf of the Fair Elections Now Act, which would allow lawmakers to qualify for public matching funds by raising money exclusively from small donors. On Thursday, the two groups plan to unveil details about the campaign, which will include TV ads targeting wavering lawmakers and grass-roots efforts in 24 states.

Former congressman Bob Edgar (D-Pa.), now the chief executive of Common Cause, said public disgust over lobbying and campaign donations from Wall Street financiers, oil barons and other wealthy players provides a clear opportunity for reform.

"This is really a critical moment," Edgar said in an interview. "The general public is well aware of the fact that money influences every aspect of politics, and they want something done about it. . . . If we miss this moment, it may be a while before we get back to it."

The Fair Elections Now Act, sponsored in the House by Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.) and Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) and in the Senate by Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), would establish a voluntary system in which candidates would agree to accept only donations of $100 or less from contributors in their districts or states. After meeting a minimum amount of qualified contributions, they would get $400 in matching funds for every $100 raised.

The two bills differ slightly in their funding mechanisms: The House bill would generate funds through a fee on auctions of unused portions of the broadcast spectrum, and the Senate bill would rely on a fee paid by large federal contractors based on how much government business they have.

Supporters say they hope to get a House floor vote on the legislation this summer, with timing less certain in the Senate. Edgar and others say their chances are improved by separate legislation now under consideration in the Senate aimed at countering a Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited spending by corporations, unions and nonprofit groups on political ads.

"The public wants to see as much reform as Congress is willing to do," said David Donnelly, who is managing the groups' campaign. "The stronger the reform, the more public support you'll get."

Donnelly points to polling and messaging research done by McKinnon Media and Westen Strategies, which found overwhelming support for pro-reform messages. They included a call to replace "corporate-funded elections with fair elections" and to "put elections back in the hands of ordinary Americans."

The pro-reform groups say that they have 157 co-sponsors in the House -- including three Republicans -- but that they have several dozen more close to endorsing it. The groups' national campaign will kick off this week with ads targeting eight wavering lawmakers in Washington state, Colorado and Florida. (By the way, Donnelly claims it is the first political spot produced on an Apple iPad.)

Critics say the legislation has little chance of passing this year, in part because a similar law governing local races in Arizona is under scrutiny by the Supreme Court. Supporters of the Fair Elections Now legislation say their proposal does not include the same kind of provision under attack in Arizona.

But Jeff Patch, communications director for the Center for Competitive Politics, which opposes many campaign-finance restrictions, said the proposal has other serious flaws, including a reliance on public money. Patch points to the current public-financing system for presidential elections, which most experts agree is faltering. He also highlighted a recent report from the Government Accountability Office that said it was not clear whether public-financing programs in Arizona and Maine had much benefit.

"We think a system where people support people they believe in rather than using taxpayer funds is the way to go," he said.

J Street eyes $1 million

Just in time for this week's Washington visit by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the J Street activist group announced that its political action committee has raised more money so far in this cycle than it did during the 2008 election.

J Street, which formed as a liberal counterpoint to more conservative Jewish political groups, says it has distributed more than $650,000 to 61 candidate this year and is on pace to surpass $1 million by November.

JStreetPAC was ranked as the largest pro-Israel PAC in 2008, according to contribution records. Washington's most powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), does not have a PAC, despite its acronym.

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