Beset by questions over his ties to the insurance and banking industry, Senator Chris Dodd this past week became the third senator to sign on to the Fair Elections Now Act, a bill that would institute a public financing system for federal campaigns.
In offering his support, the Connecticut Democrat joins the legislation's original co-sponsors, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Arlen Specter (D-Pa.). A larger group, including Republicans, is backing a similar measure in the House of Representatives
Championed by good government groups, the bill would provide congressional candidates who participate in the program a pool of public funds along with additional avenues to raise cash and buy air time on television. Its chances of passage, while remote, seem greater in the House, where Congressman John Larson, also a Connecticut Democrat, has indicated that he would like to consider the measure sometime this summer.
Dodd's backing of the bill, observers say, gives it an additional boost in the Senate. The senator faces difficult reelection path in 2010 -- as does Specter (even as a Democrat).
"Senator Dodd signing onto this bill signals that senators believe that this is an important step to take to blunt the interests of the banks the insurance companies and the oil companies in the role that they play in shaping policy in Washington," said David Donnelly, of Public Campaign Action Fund, a national campaign finance watchdog group. "Members of Congress are spending more time raising money than ever before... the issues in front of Congress, the major ones, are impacted by money more than ever before, and the public is increasingly impatient. You add all those together and I think our chances have improved dramatically in the last months. It is hard to predict when this will happen. Typically it takes a big scandal to crystallize public opinion but that is another thing this system gives us: scandal."
Dodd himself has been beleaguered by a bit of hardly scandalous but nevertheless politically damaging fundraising news. His ties to the insurance giant AIG were scrutinized after the firm required tens of billions of dollars in government bailout funds. They became a weight around his neck once it was revealed that he had intervened -- on the Obama administration's behalf -- to allow the company to pay retention bonuses for last year's work.
In this regard, backing the Fair Elections legislation benefits the senator both principally and politically -- advancing a cause that is widely popular in his home state (Connecticut is one of six states to have implemented a public finance system) while diluting the criticisms of his own fundraising operations. Indeed, when he was promoting the legislation upon its introduction, actor Sam Waterson noted that the discussion over AIG's bonuses would be dramatically different had the company not had spent such copious amounts of money on federal elections.
"We might have different opinions, we might like or dislike legislators' ideas about what to do about the crisis, but we wouldn't be wondering if any one of them were on the take or whether their opinion was being colored by who was helping them get elected," said Waterston. "It would just change the conversation radically."