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Robert Kuttner

Robert Kuttner

Posted: September 19, 2010 06:16 PM

What can progressives and Democrats do about the anti-Washington tide sweeping the country? The economy certainly isn't going to get much better before the November election.

One practical and symbolic thing they could do is to pass the Fair Elections Now Act, which likely to be voted out of committee next Thursday. The Act, sponsored by Rep. John Larsen of Connecticut, with 165 co-sponsors and at least 40 more supporters, would give matching money to candidates who agreed to raise only small donations. It even has three Republican co-sponsors.

The right as well as the left is disgusted with corporate domination of our politics, a system where elected officials spend more and more of their time raising money. We're not going to overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court decision any time soon, allowing unlimited sums to be spent on soft money. But at least we can drastically reduce the self-interested money that goes directly to candidates.

So far in this election cycle, House and Senate candidates have raised $1.2 billion dollars, and the money arms-race only grows.

Under the proposed Act, a candidate who raised small donations from at least 1,500 small donors contributing no more than $100 each for a total of at least $50,000 could get matching money, at a 4-to-1 ratio.

As much as $3 million in public financing would be available -- enough to be competitive on most House races. The money wouldn't come from tax dollars, but from a special levy on the auctioning of broadcast spectrum, something that belongs to the citizens of the United States.

As a money-and-politics reform, this legislation is a vast improvement on the so called Disclose Act, which Republicans blocked last July. That bill would have provided more complete public disclosures about the sources of funds but did nothing to limit the dependence on special interest money. Many progressives opposed the Disclose Act because it wasn't really campaign finance reform -- and to add insult to injury it included special exemptions for the National Rifle Association.

The task of progressives is to address voter discontent with business as usual, and break it into understandable issues. Like votes drawing the line against cutting Social Security benefits, or offering tax relief to the middle and working class but not the rich, the Fair Elections Now legislation is a good way to smoke out differences between Democrats and Republicans and to disentangle the general backlash against "Washington." Any incumbent Republican who votes against this reform should be ashamed to face voters.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is said to be torn about whether to schedule a floor vote on this bill. On the one hand, she is a strong supporter of clean elections reform and appreciates the value of the bill. On the other hand, she wants to wrap up House business so that her endangered colleagues can get home to campaign.

But progressives need more ammunition to campaign on, and this is another of those reform measures that remind voters why Washington is not one undifferentiated mess. It will take more than this to get big money out of politics, but it's certainly a good start.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His new book is "A Presidency in Peril."