A chance to do something lasting

09/21/2010 07:50 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sometimes history sneaks up on us. In the next two weeks, amid loud and - more than likely - inconclusive debates over tax cuts for the middle class, illegal immigration, and military service by gay Americans, Congress has a chance to do something lasting and meaningful to revitalize our democracy.

Nothing could be more important, and yet this opportunity is getting far less attention than it should by journalists, pundits, and most elected officials.

On Thursday morning, the House Administration Committee is scheduled to mark up the Fair Elections Now Act (HR 1826/6116), arguably the most far-reaching political reform proposal since the Watergate era. With luck, there'll be a House floor vote before Oct. 1.

This legislation, which has quietly gained the support or co-sponsorship of nearly 170 House members, is a bold attempt to break the hold that big dollar political contributors - oil companies, pharmaceutical houses, insurers, banks, defense contractors and others - have on our government.

Fair Elections would let candidates for Congress, who now must rely on those big givers to finance the high cost of campaigning, to run instead on a base of small gifts from people in their districts. A candidate who raises $50,000 in donations of $100 or less would qualify for grants totaling more than $1 million from a new Fair Elections Fund. Additional donations, again of no more than $100, would be matched on a 4-1 basis.

None of it would cost taxpayers a dime. The Fair Elections Fund would be drawn from the proceeds of lease sales of the publicly-owned broadcast spectrum; the sales are expected to generate about 10 times as much money as the fund would require.

I've been in and around politics -- as a candidate, a member of Congress and an activist -- for about 40 years and I've never seen the American electorate so restless.

Conservatives, moderates and liberals share a sense that something is amiss in our politics. A Rasmussen national survey released in August found that 70% of voters believe that most members of Congress are "willing to sell their vote for either cash or a campaign contribution."

The Fair Elections Now Act attacks that problem -- head on. The House should meet history the same way and pass it.