Election Reform: Follow the Money
"As an elected official, I think I am the only person I know of who is supposed to take large amounts of money from private individuals who very much want me to do a certain thing and then act as if they haven't given it to me, to ignore the money. I'm supposed to be a perfect ingrate and that's hard to do, given human nature." Barney Frank, D-Mass. During a 2006 interview with Etopia Media
When money talks, as the old saying goes, no one cares what grammar it uses - least of all, our elected officials.
Money, as has been well documented over the years, buys access to the political process, greasing the wheels for the folks with the cash, too often at the expense of the rest of us.
"The money chase is increasingly stealing time that lawmakers would otherwise spend learning the issues, grilling witnesses at hearings, and talking to constituents about local concerns," Michael Crowley writes in the April issue of Reader's Digest.
Elected officials, he says, are spending an increasing amount of time on fundraising, often "timing debates and votes around big-ticket fetes" and other events designed to fill their campaign war chests, attended not by average voters, but by "Gucci-loafer lobbyists for big corporations, labor unions, and other special interests who are all buying face time with representatives."
David Donnelly wants to change this. As the Public Campaign Action Fund's national campaigns director and director of its Campaign Money Watch project, the Roosevelt resident has been fighting to limit the influence of private money on politicians for more than a decade.
He's been involved with campaigns in several states - managing efforts in Maine and Massachusetts and playing an advisory role in Vermont, North Carolina and Connecticut - and is now helping push for public financing for congressional races.
"What we've found is that fundraising efforts for congressional seats were very much focused on where there is wealth," he says.
This creates the impression - which is "sometimes the reality" - that "Congress as an institution does not listen to the American people," he says. "It listens to its donors and this hurts the ability of people to have faith in what Congress does."
Federal legislation - introduced March 31 and sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa. - is designed to address this. The bill - dubbed the Fair Elections Now Act - would provide participating candidates with public money in exchange for agreeing to accept only small donations.
According to Roll Call, participants would be limited to "$200 per donor in both the primary and general elections, significantly less than the $4,800 per donor limits under existing law." Participating candidates would then receive "matching funds equal to four times each donation of $100 or less."
The bill calls for a minimum number of in-state contributions - 1,500 for House candidates and 2,000 plus 500 for each congressional district in the state for Senate candidates. In New Jersey, for instance, Senate candidates would need to collect 8,500 small donations to qualify, according to Politico.
"Members of Congress increasingly are spending too much time raising money when they should be dealing with the major issues facing Washington and the rest of the country," Mr. Donnelly says. "They are literally distracted by fundraising and cannot weigh in and consider the complexity of issues - health care, changing the economy to a green economy. These are major issues that need the full attention of lawmakers and we don't have that."
At the same time, the way we pay for elections shrinks the candidate pool, limiting it to the "people who have access to money, the people who know where to find it or have in their own bank accounts."
That gives the money people way too much power, which can squeeze the rest of us out of the discussion. Lawmakers, he said, "spend a lot of time with a certain slice of the electorate" - and it's not likely the short-order cook at Burrito Royale in South Brunswick or the waitress at the Princetonian Diner on West Windsor.
"Campaign contributions track class lines in this country," Mr. Donnelly says. "Who has the available money at the end of the month? Not someone who is trying to pay their rent, who is trying to afford their prescription drugs or their health benefits."
It is not "nefarious," he says. It is human nature.
"I'm not impugning anyone's integrity," he says. "It is the system that should be indicted."
And then changed.
© 2009 The Princeton Packet Newspaper Group