Biggest Need for Reform Since Watergate

For Immediate Release

Common Cause
Contact: 

Mary Boyle
(202)736-5770

Biggest Need for Reform Since Watergate

Eight Action Items in New Report Would Permanently Change the Washington Game

WASHINGTON - Common Cause, one of the nation's largest citizen action organizations, is calling on Congress and the Obama Administration to join in making eight changes that will "utterly change the pay-to-play nature of how business gets done in Washington," said Arn Pearson, vice president for programs at Common Cause. "The country needs to have its faith restored in our campaigns and elected officials as we rely on them for big decisions that will affect our lives for years."

Common Cause released its agenda for change in a new document, "Campaign Finance Reform: A New Era," [PDF] and laid out eight specific action steps that would eliminate the dominant role of large contributors in campaigns, increase transparency in the way campaigns are funded, and "at long last, give the us the teeth to enforce the rules, which today does not happen at all," Pearson said.

The reform package urges adoption of these measures:

1. Creation of a Congressional campaign financing system that allows qualified candidates to blend unlimited small donations with substantial public funding, cutting out the role of large donors who today dominate fundraising. This would take advantage of the increased potential of candidates to raise small donations from many individuals, mostly online, Pearson noted, and through public grants allow serious candidates to wage effective campaigns and get their message out to constituents at election time.

2. An overhaul of the three-decade old public financing system for Presidential candidates, which is now so outdated that last year's leading candidate, Barack Obama, opted out of the system entirely. 'Everyone acknowledges that the presidential system is out of date," Pearson said, "and the only action that makes any sense is to update it by empowering small donors to play a bigger role and increase the public funding to qualified candidates. Otherwise, we face a grim future where every major candidate – even those with a wide base of supporters – will continue to rely heavily on a handful of wealthy interests for campaign funds. By using public financing to amplify the voice of small donors, we can reduce the power of special interests and put campaigns back in the hands of the average citizen."

3. Congressional leaders of both parties must bring an end to their internal system of party fundraising quotas for sitting members of Congress. "An insidious system of fundraising quotas has grown over the past several years, requiring members of Congress who want good committee assignments, for example, to 'pony up' by getting lobbyists and other well-connected individuals and PACs to contribute heavily. Many members now tell us they spend upwards of a third of their time just raising money for campaigns – and not only for their own," Pearson said.

4. Federal candidates should be prohibited from forming so-called joint fundraising committees with party organizations. Campaign contributions to candidates are capped at a lower level than contributions to political parties, but presidential candidates and the parties have found a loophole through joint committees where even a candidate who accepts public financing can still solicit and benefit from large contributions to the party organization, which then uses the money to help the candidate's campaign.

5. Congress should ban unlimited contributions from corporations and unions to each party's nominating convention. Under the McCain-Feingold bill of 2002, unlimited "soft money" donations to national parties were banned, but the Federal Election Commission created a loophole for the party conventions. "This is another backdoor method of finding special favor with candidates and the political establishment," Pearson said.

6. Congress must increase transparency in their reporting of bundling of contributions. Often, lobbyists and other political activists will gather as many individual contributions as they can and present them as a "bundle" to a campaign, ingratiating themselves to the candidates and assuring special access in the future. Common Cause urged Congress to enact tighter disclosure requirements on bundling.

7. The Senate must at long last join the 21st century and file its campaign finance reports electronically. "This may seem like a small step, which is all the more reason it should have happened long ago. The current filing system means that the public often cannot find out who funded a Senatorial campaign until weeks after the election is over," Pearson said. Common Cause points out that there is no reason the data cannot be processed electronically and made available quickly, since campaigns track donations electronically in the first place and House and Presidential campaigns have filed electronically for years.

8. Congress must get rid of the Federal Election Commission, "which has done almost nothing good in recent years," in Pearson's words, "and establish a new independent agency that is not subject to partisan gridlock." Under the current system, the FEC has three Republican and three Democratic appointments, almost assuring deadlock on many cases – and thus little enforcement of the law. The agency is further hamstrung by a lengthy enforcement process. The new agency would have single commissioner directing a professional staff, with a specific term of office to help assure independence and the ability to act quickly if a campaign or organization violates the law.

"Some people may see these eight recommendations as 'process' issues only, but they would be missing the big picture – when government fails to address the issues that people worry about every day, you can often trace it directly back to how we elect our leaders and how our system forces many of them to act," Pearson said.

"Only when Congress and the Administration really get down to business – and that means taking apart the money trail and letting the sunlight in on the ways decisions get made – can the nation move forward. With our country beset by a huge economic crisis and ongoing wars, we must take bold steps to renew the average citizen's belief that yes, in the end, the government is here for them and that their voices will be heard – and gone are the days of catering to Wall Street, oil companies, and other wealthy interests with plenty of money to spend in Washington."

Click here to read and download the report. [PDF]

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