Proponents Count On Obama To Help Change Fundraising —Tuesday, March 31, 2009

By Jonathan D. Salant

Supporters of legislation to overhaul the way congressional campaigns are funded say President Barack Obama's support and his fundraising prowess are crucial to their success.

Legislation introduced today, the last day of the current fundraising quarter, would cap donations to U.S. House and Senate candidates at $100 each for the primary and general elections, with the federal government offering a 4-1 match for contributions from home-state residents. Candidates could raise as much as they want and would also get a lump sum from the government.

Participation by candidates in the system would be voluntary. A release issued by the bill's sponsors said that the "Fair Elections Now Act would create a voluntary system that gives congressional candidates the option to stop raising huge sums of money, giving them more time to work on the people's business."

Proponents have tried to overhaul congressional campaign fundraising for years without success. This time, they cite Obama's success in wooing smaller donors — 54 percent of his donations were $200 or less — and they note that both the president and the congressional Democratic leaders campaigned on promises to root out corruption and curb the influence of special interests.

Obama Signal

"If Barack even gives a signal that he'll sign this, it will change everything," said Toby Moffett, a former Democratic representative from Connecticut who is now a lobbyist. "If he's really a lobby-reform guy, it's total hypocrisy if you're not for public financing. You're not getting to the link between lobbying and access unless you attack campaign finance."

White House spokesman Ben LaBolt had no immediate comment.

Opponents say that there is little public support for providing federal funding to House and Senate candidates, noting that fewer than 10 percent of U.S. taxpayers check the box on their income tax forms to help fund presidential campaigns.

"In a time of economic crisis, people need a real strong reason for why their taxpayer dollars are going to support campaign consultants, TV ads and bumper stickers," said Jeff Patch, a spokesman for the Alexandria, Virginia-based Center for Competitive Politics, a group founded by former Federal Election Commission Chairman Bradley Smith that opposes limits on campaign spending. "There's no rationale for why this bill is going to do anything to end or even reduce corruption."

Bill Sponsors

Obama was a co-sponsor of similar legislation in the last Congress. Sponsors of this year's version include members of the Democratic leadership in both the House and Senate, lawmakers who owe their majority status in part to their party's attacks on what it called the Republicans' "culture of corruption."

"If there's going to be real change in the way we do business in Washington, it has to start with the way we finance our congressional campaigns," said Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democratic leader and a co-sponsor of the legislation.

Two Republican lawmakers went to jail, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, lost his post after being indicted, and former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff was imprisoned and remains at the center of a Justice Department investigation. Obama's campaign Web site continues to promise "real change in Washington."

'Different Era'

"We're in a very different era," said Craig Holman, who lobbies on campaign-finance issues for the Washington-based advocacy group Public Citizen. "We've not only changed party control because of that type of scandal, but the new people who came in seem to be very committed to make sure that type of scandal doesn't reoccur. The new Congress and the White House know why they are here."

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson of Connecticut is also among the measure's chief sponsors, along with Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Republican Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina. Another co- sponsor is freshman Democratic Representative Chellie Pingree of Maine, former president of Common Cause, which has lobbied for public financing for years.

Federal Grants

Unlike the system for presidential elections, which offers taxpayer funds to those who limit spending, congressional candidates could raise an unlimited amount of money in addition to a federal grant of $900,000 for House candidates and at least $1.5 million for Senate candidates, split between the primary and general elections. The catch is that donations could be no more than $100 per election.

"We're not trying to get money out of politics; we're trying to get special-interest money out of politics," said Lisa Gilbert, a lobbyist for the Boston-based U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which supports the legislation.

To qualify for the federal money, House candidates would first have to take in $50,000 from 1,500 people, according to the proponents' Web site. Senate candidates would have to raise more.

Under current rules, there is no federal money available for House or Senate candidates. They have the option of paying for a campaign out of their own pocket. Otherwise, they must rely on individual donations and, in some cases, political action committees for most of their funding. Contributions by individuals are capped at $2,400 per primary and general election, while PACs are limited to $5,000 per election.

Curb Influence

Proponents say the legislation would eliminate the need for lawmakers to spend much of their time dialing for dollars. It would curb the influence of lobbyists because they could give only $100 per election and raise money in only $100 amounts.

Political action committees could no longer donate, joint fundraising committees with the political parties would be abolished, and contributions to lawmakers' political action committees would be limited to $100 per person.

The program would be funded through a surcharge on federal contractors of one-half of 1 percent, up to a maximum of $500,000. Proponents expect it to cost between $700 million and $850 million every two years.

Some lobbyists aren't happy with the current system, Moffett said. He said he's one of them and is helping to organize other lobbyists to support the legislation. They're tired of being asked to raise and donate money, he said.

"So many people are sick of this," he said. "But nobody's sick of it more than members are."

Moffett said he recently saw about 30 lawmakers going from the Capitol to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's offices to make fundraising phone calls.

"They didn't look happy," he said. "It was like the march to Bataan."

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