WASHINGTON - Alan Kovacs has contributed to political campaigns since he was a senior in college almost four decades ago.
now he is making a public show of closing his wallet, fed up with
Congress' failure to act on pressing issues such as the excesses that
caused the financial meltdown.
He is part of a grass-roots initiative led by Internet guru Lawrence Lessig and Joe Trippi, a master of using small-dollar donations to finance political campaigns, that seeks to get big money out of politics.
Lessig and Trippi set up a "strike for change" at Change-Congress.org
that launched Thursday night, where ordinary people such as Kovacs can
sign a pledge refusing to give any money to politicians unless they
support legislation to publicly finance House and Senate races.
usually wealthy contributors and well-heeled lobbyists who dole out
lavish campaign contributions to politicians and hope the recipients
will return the favor by embracing donors' pet interests. The new idea
is to get small givers to withhold their cash until they get their way.
long-shot goal is to pressure Congress to embrace public financing of
elections under a system that allows only small private donations.
a decidedly uphill climb that will likely take years to succeed - if
ever. It comes on the heels of an election season that obliterated all
fundraising records and likely dealt a death blow to the only existing
public financing system at the federal level, the one for presidential elections.
Still, the idea has some degree of bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.
A leading proposal is sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania,
the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee. It would allocate public
money to candidates after they have shown they can meet minimum
fundraising requirements through small donations, and then requires
that they swear off taking any more private money.
A similar measure last year won the backing of President-elect Barack Obama, the former Illinois senator whom Lessig has advised on technology issues. Lessig said he has not discussed the current effort with Obama or his team.
real objective is to create a system where nobody could believe that
Congress is doing what they're doing because it was bought by special
interests," Lessig, a Stanford University law professor, said in an
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Lessig, who gained prominence
as a crusader for fewer restrictions on copyrights, abandoned that
cause in 2007. Trippi is a longtime advocate of what he calls the "$100
revolution" - pooling large amounts of $100 contributions, which would
go to the first candidate promising to take only donations of $100 or
He teamed with Lessig to head up a sort of citizens' lobbying campaign based on the same principle.
Their group will tally the amount of donors withholding their money, along with the total they have contributed to political campaigns
in the past, to show candidates how much cash they're leaving on the
table if they refuse to support a citizens' financing measure.
is really getting people to understand the power they have now, and I
think people do understand it now with the Obama campaign," he said.
Obama, the first presidential candidate since the campaign finance reforms of the 1970s to raise private donations during the general election, did not accept contributions from political action committees or lobbyists. His campaign said nearly 4 million donors contributed to it. The nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute reported that the campaign collected only about one-quarter of its total from people who gave less than $200.
Recent polls show that the public's opinion of Congress is at a low ebb, with approval ratings
hovering around 25 percent. Hoping to harness that frustration and the
appetite for change stoked by Obama's campaign, Lessig has traveled the
country and gone on television to promote his effort.
He caught the attention of Kovacs, a 61-year-old lawyer from Newton, Mass., during a recent presentation at Boston University.
"The special interests and individuals who can contribute large amounts
of money have too much control, and real change won't happen until
regular people - the common man - are the ones that congressmen and
senators start listening to," Kovacs said.
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