The Access Initiative

U.S. Bill to Limit Corporate Influence in Congressional Elections

Barack Obama relied on small donations to finance his successful presidential campaign

By David Heller (Posted: March 27, 2009)

The U.S. Congress is set to introduce legislation designed to reinvigorate participatory democracy by implementing a small-donor approach to congressional campaign finance, challenging the status quo where elections are largely fueled by corporate- and lobby- based contributions. The Access Initiative (TAI) has long noted the value of keeping regular citizens at the heart of the democratic process. This legislative effort is commendable for its commitment to promoting an array of democratic principles.

But because of its radical departure from the engrained Beltway precedents of big money and special interest politics, the bill’s passage is far from guaranteed.

Called ‘The Durbin-Specter Fair Elections Now Act,’ the bill would establish a voluntary system of ‘Fair Elections’ funding for qualified congressional candidates who decline corporate funding and raise only small donations from their constituents.

The scheme that the bill proposes is ambitious but not impractical. First, candidates seeking to participate would have to collect a certain number of $5-$100 contributions from their constituents. After raising a given amount of money – signifying their viability as a candidate – they would be provided with a publicly-funded “Start-Up Grant” to launch a primary campaign, as well as matching funds of $4 for every $1 raised through constituents.

Candidates who receive their party’s nomination in the primary election are then eligible to receive a competitive public grant for use in the general election.

Because the system is voluntary, additional provisions ensure that the candidate opting into it will be competitive with candidates who do not, and choose to remain reliant on larger, more traditional sources of donations.

First, the system is structured so that candidates will receive funding support consistent with the amount raised by elected politicians in previous campaigns. So, participating candidates will not be disadvantaged by a lack of funds. Also, candidates are eligible to receive discounted fares for costs incurred by campaign communications, like T.V. and radio advertisements.

But despite earning bipartisan sponsorship in both houses of the Congress and strong support from a broad base of issue-specific communities including environmental, faith, and labor groups, there has been pessimism expressed about the bill’s passage.

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said that the proposal would be “hard politically.”

Representatives are notorious for engaging in behind-the-scenes efforts to oppose ethics and campaign finance overhauls in initial stages, but then overwhelmingly supporting them if and when a public vote occurs.

Ultimately, the political costs associated with severing ties to resourceful lobbyists should not blind politicians from recognizing the principled benefits that the bill’s passage will incur.

Fundamentally, it will strengthen the frayed link between representatives and their constituents– the people whose interests representatives are intended to reflect in legislative action. If electoral funding does not come from particular interest groups, but the general public, then representatives will be more likely to support policies that are in the public interest, as opposed to the interest of a particular industry.

This will improve policy decisions generally, because politicians would have an incentive to base them on the objective merits of particular cases – and how they may affect their constituency’s wellbeing – as opposed to the reaction of more parochial funding organizations.

Other byproducts of this democratic commitment include the bill’s encouragement of getting the public – both potential candidates and regular citizens – involved in politics. Candidates will no longer remain beholden to the wealthiest interest groups. Instead, a successful campaign can be run on the broad based support of individual people. This could lead to a more diverse and competitive representative body, comprised of intelligent and hard-working people who lack influential ties to particular industries.

Likewise, the bill will create an environment in which networks of grassroots organizations – manned by individual citizens – will be empowered to lead candidates through election cycles.

Examples of the effectiveness of small donor-based campaign financing abound. While the bill will not initially apply to presidential elections, the unprecedented campaign of Barack Obama demonstrates the ability of grassroots networks to win elections and increase overall political involvement, as people showed up to the polls and contributed money during this election in record numbers.

Likewise, five U.S. states have already implemented similar small donor programs for their state-level elections, and they’ve been widely viewed as successful.

Should the U.S. Congress pass the bill, not only would it advance the state of democracy in the U.S., but it would send a broader message to the rest of the world about the importance – and political feasibility – of abiding by democratic principles.

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