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The Alternative to Wooing Wealthy Candidates

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This piece was produced for HuffPost's OffTheBus by NYU School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice.

By Bethany Foster

You're way behind in fundraising for congressional races. The tide of public opinion is against you. What's a party to do? Recruit super-wealthy candidates, of course.

Last week the New York Times described the GOP's plan to seek candidates able to self-finance their campaigns to make up for relatively weak fundraising numbers. In the first 10 months of 2007, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised $16 million more than the National Republican Congressional Committee. The GOP's Senate committee raised just $26.3 million in the same period compared to the $45.1 million raised by its Democratic counterpart. Yet as the Times notes, the Democrats too have their share of deep-pocketed contenders.

The unabashed interest in wealthy candidates is one of this campaign season's most blatant signs that our system of choosing elected officials is broken. Instead of seeking out the brightest, most capable Americans to take on the tough issues facing our country, the parties are checking the wallets of potential candidates for American Express Black Cards.

So what's the alternative? Public financing of congressional elections. As we've seen on the state level in Maine and Arizona, public financing systems give candidates of any personal means the chance to attract public support and receive funds to run a competitive campaign. Public financing frees candidates from the pressures of fundraising, allowing sitting officials to concentrate on serving their constituents. Out on the trail, publicly funded candidates woo voters, not just big donors, by addressing the issues important to ordinary Americans. And individuals who would rather stick to the old system are able to opt out and raise funds privately.

A bill like the Fair Elections Now Act, introduced by Senators Durbin (D-IL) and Specter (R-PA), would go a long way toward making campaigns more about fitness for office and less about individual wealth or access to big donors.