End the Money Chase, Get Back to the Business of Governing

Next week, 535 Members of Congress will file their quarterly fundraising reports with the Federal Election Commission. The reports will say little or nothing about the quality of their leadership and everything about their chances of winning reelection.

For the non-wealthy unknown American, the details of the reports present a warning: Don't even think about becoming a candidate for office. The reason is that the cost of running a campaign is a barrier to entry that continues to grow with each new election cycle.

For example, if you want to be a credible candidate in a New York Senate race you'll need a minimum of $25 million; in Montana the stake is $5 million; and in the average congressional race, it's well over $1 million. The Constitution may say you are eligible but a modest campaign budget says you are not.

This is political truth unvarnished by patriotic rhetoric. You say you want to serve your country in Congress? Show me the money. Otherwise, you will be shown the door.

To get the money you'll either need to be sufficiently wealthy that a $25 million expenditure is pocket change or you'll need to do things that make a person with an average capacity for shame and guilt feel like they have done something terribly wrong. Sometimes -- as the latest PMA scandal in Washington reveals -- the feeling will be justified.

If you believe this needs to change, but do not want to modify the First Amendment, the only solution is public funding of Federal elections, driven by small donations. Under such a system, serious, hardworking candidates who say no to special interest money and accept only small donations from their constituents, receive enough in matching funds to run a competitive campaign.

And as effective as opponents of public funding are at fogging the view of citizens who are appalled by the status quo, every new election cycle brings news that the cost of running Federal campaigns has gone up again.

Former Senators Bill Bradley, Alan Simpson, Warren Rudman, and I have proposed this modest solution. Our answer is a voluntary system of public funding that preserves the First Amendment, lowers the barrier to entry and will liberate our representatives from the burdens and temptations associated with asking others for money. Senator Dick Durbin (Ill) and Congressman John Larson (Conn) have taken up the challenge by introducing the Fair Elections Now Act in Congress.

I commend any Congressman or Senator who wishes to end the money chase and get back to the business of governing. Leadership should matter more than quarterly fundraising reports.

Former Senator Bob Kerrey is a co-chair of Americans for Campaign Reform.