Monday, April 13, 2009

Fair Elections Now (Or a Donor Strike?)

Fair Elections Now (Or a Donor Strike?)

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At this perilous moment, as we face key battles on the economic crisis, climate change, healthcare, and a slew of other issues, it's important to recognize that these fights will not be settled in one fell swoop this year or next, but will play out over the coming decade or more. Working against bold, progressive solutions on all of these issues is a constant problem: big money donors hold sway, shifting the policy debate and shafting the common good. Only through real campaign reform will we level the playing field so that the voices of ordinary people are heard loud and clear inside the Beltway.

That's why it's so important that the Fair Elections Now Act has been introduced in both the House and Senate with bipartisan support, and that a savvy coalition is rallying public support for it, including: Change Congress, Public Campaign, Common Cause, Public Citizen, US PIRG, Brennan Center for Justice, Americans for Campaign Reform, MoveOn, and others.

Change Congress -- an organization launched by Lawrence Lessig and Joe Trippi to reduce the influence of money in politics -- has taken the lead on organizing an online strategy. Lessig said, "My view is it's finally time for us to do what Teddy Roosevelt suggested we do about 102 years ago, which is to bring about an election system where what's driving the results is fear about how voters in the district will respond, rather than fear about how the funders will respond."

The bill provides qualified candidates the opportunity to run with a mixture of small-dollar contributions and public money. Candidates who raise a large number of small contributions ($100 or less) from their home state qualify for a set amount of public money that will make them competitive. If the candidate chooses, he or she can continue to raise small donations and receive a 4:1 match -- up to a specified cap -- in order to compete on a level playing field with wealthy, self-financed candidates and those raising money in the traditional way. There are also resources in the bill for media time when candidates get to the general election. In determining the caps and amounts of money required to make candidates competitive, advocates did some good research on how states with these kinds of laws have worked and also examined the fundraising stats of past Congressional races.

This brand of public financing is different from campaign finance reforms that simply attempt to regulate the flow of money in the political process. Candidates participating in this system must rely exclusively on small donors. By matching small donations with public funds, it's a way of putting political clout in the hands of ordinary people.

This path creates a new world of possibility for up-from-the-grassroots political organizing and fresh-faced candidates. It plays to the strengths of community organizers and membership based organizations and could be a critical building block for progressive power across the country. David Donnelly, the national campaigns director for Public Campaign who has worked on this issue for decades, said that the bill "provides enough money for [participating] candidates to be competitive in just about every single race in the country."

The coalition is using the current two-week recess to get additional cosponsors for the House and Senate bills. One key strategy to push for cosponsorship is through demonstrating the electoral cost of a member's failure to support the bill. That's largely accomplished through Change Congress' Donor Strike.

The Donor Strike allows individuals to pledge to withhold money from any politician who doesn't cosponsor the Fair Elections bill. Based on the previous election cycle, the withholdings by donors taking the pledge has now crossed the $1.1 million mark, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein the biggest loser at $288,000.

Change Congress also provides talking points for citizens to lobby members of Congress and report their results. In the past week, 2100 people have made calls using that tool. Other coalition partners have made hundreds or even thousands of calls.

"The challenge is to keep that drumbeat up," said Adam Green, CEO of Change Congress and former director of strategic campaigns at MoveOn.org. "During high energy moments on other fights in the news are the times to remind people that we can solve the systemic underlying issue."

As an example, Green points to the story Huffington Post broke in January on a conference call between AIG, Bank of America and other corporate execs where they discussed funneling millions of dollars to Senate Republicans in order to influence votes on the Employee Free Choice Act.

"Thousands of people signed up for the donor strike," Green said. "The dots were connected for them and they understood the need to solve the underlying systemic problem [which is] that people in congress who are supposed to be making laws that govern special interests are also trapped in a system that forces them to beg special interests for campaign cash."

Donnelly agreed. "From healthcare, to the energy economy, to more stringent regulations on financial sector… these fights are going to be decided over the next 10 years, and the question in my mind is on what playing field will those decisions be made?"

"We need to make sure as we're making these major decisions in Congress that [Members] are not a) distracted by fundraising and b) raising money from the very people that we often see as part of the problem," Lessig said.

This kind of public finance model has already proven effective in Maine, Arizona and Connecticut. (According to Green, in Connecticut 4 out of 5 candidates opted-in, and over 80 percent of newly elected legislators participated in it as well.). In polls by both Republican and Democratic pollsters, over 70 percent of the public supported the elements of the federal bill.

With senior Democratic leaders at the helm of the public financing bill -- House Democratic Caucus Chair John Larsen and Majority Whip Dick Durbin are both original cosponsors, and President Obama cosponsored the bill as a Senator -- we are in a unique position to win this key reform. Hearings are expected on the bill as early as mid-May, so now is the time to join the donor strike, call your representatives and tell them to cosponsor the bill.

The faster we can win real reforms that empower the political voice of ordinary people, the more successful we'll be in achieving progressive solutions for the major issues of our time.

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