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Durbin and Specter Take on D.C. Money Culture

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Today, Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) are introducing the Fair Elections Now Act, legislation that would bring spending limits and full public financing to Congressional elections. It represents an historic opportunity for every elected official in Congress to say "no" to the politics of big checks and the endless money chase and "yes" to putting voters first. Representative John Tierney (D-MA) will lead a similar effort in the House.

The measure would turn the big money culture of Washington upside down. Under the Fair Elections Now Act, candidates will depend on ordinary voters in their districts to run a competitive campaign for office. The price for a ticket to a fundraiser is five dollars. Bring a crowd of your neighbors to a backyard barbeque, and you'll likely draw a candidate for Congress.

That stands in sharp contrast to the scores of political fundraising parties in Washington, D.C. this week, where high dollar lobbyists and their clients will snack on fancy hors d'oeuvres and chomp down access to America's lawmakers. The Fair Elections Now Act offers a clear alternative to the unlimited spending and open-ended fundraising chase that has become the essence of our country's politics.

The policy proposal is modeled on public financing systems in place in seven states and two cities. Last November, more than 200 officials were elected in Arizona, Maine, and North Carolina who ran under public financing systems, often called "Clean Elections." The basic idea is simple. Candidates who collect a large number of small contributions can qualify for public financing of their campaigns. In return, they agree to strict spending limits and halt their private fundraising. Candidates facing an unusually high-spending opponent and those attacked by independent expenditures can receive additional public "fair fight" funds. Similar laws are also in place for all or some offices in Connecticut, New Jersey, New Mexico, Vermont, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Portland, Oregon.

Does the Fair Elections Now Act have a chance at becoming law? Absolutely, though the battle to change the D.C. power structure's dependence on big money contributions won't be an easy one. But it's not simply the campaign reform community's fight. Washington politicians know the current system isn't sustainable and a number of the country's leading issue and constituency groups, from the Sierra Club to the NAACP to the AFL-CIO are solidly behind the Fair Elections Now Act. More than that, the voters are dead tired of pay-to-play politics. They sent a message last November, but until the announcement today, our elected leaders have not moved to confront head on the issue of endless campaign fundraising. With new corruption scandals breaking almost on a routine basis, there will be no let up in the pressure to give voters greater control over the political system - something else our lawmakers can take to the bank.