Political Fix Part of the Economic Solution

Understandably, Americans are deeply angry about the country's current fiscal crisis. In response, many of our elected officials in Washington D.C. are pointing fingers at the executives of the failed companies. The White House forces General Motors C.E.O. Rick Wagoner to step down. The U.S. House of Representatives, in a bi-partisan vote, pushes for a 90% tax on the bonuses of employees at bailed out firms. Austan Goolsbee, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisors, says that AIG should have gotten "the Nobel Prize for evil".

But there's another important way to address the issue. It begins by recognizing that Congress was complicit in the economic downturn. By abandoning its oversight duties and moving systematically over the years to deregulate the financial sector, Capitol Hill lawmakers looked the other way and worse as risky financial practices brought us to the worst economic collapse in eighty years. This wasn't the result of rational decision-making in the broad public interest. Instead, it can be better explained by close to two billion invested in federal political campaigns by deep-pocket donors from the financial community over the last decade, along with more than three billion dollars spent on lobbying. The money went to Democrats and Republicans alike. And more of it flowed this last political cycle than in any previous two-year period.

One necessary piece of our economic revival must be to change the political system that allowed Congress to abdicate its role as guardian of voters interests. Today, Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) were joined by House Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) and Rep. Walter Jones, Jr. (R-N.C.) in introducing the Fair Elections Now Act--a comprehensive campaign reform proposal that will undercut the problematic role of Wall Street lobbyists and financial sector contributors in the political process.

The Fair Elections Now Act would put voters first by providing House and Senate candidates an alternative way to pay for their campaigns. Candidates would raise a large number of small contributions from their home states in order to qualify for enough Fair Elections funding to run a competitive race. After qualifying, small in-state donations, up to $100, would be matched on a four-to-one basis, up to a ceiling. Candidates would be permitted to collect an unlimited number of $100 contributions from individuals. The proposal covers both primary and general elections.

This landmark legislation is based on successful programs in Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, North Carolina, and elsewhere. Because of these systems, nearly 400 elected officials nationwide are serving the public free from direct big money influence. Eight of the 10 statewide officeholders in Arizona were elected under their state's law, and five in six lawmakers in both Maine and Connecticut were elected without relying on big money contributions. Candidates and voters from both major parties have embraced these laws as a marked improvement over the private financing of elections

These elected officials have more time to work on common sense policy solutions and do not need to focus on the narrow slice of contributors who would have previously funded their campaigns. The emphasis on small qualifying contributions empowers community members from all racial, ethnic and socio-economic strata and makes a donation from a small business owner or custodial worker worth just as much as one from a C.E.O. and their lobbyist.

With powerful Congressional leaders now behind public financing, the chances to roll back the pay-to-play politics norm in Washington, D.C. have never looked better. President Obama has supported similar legislation throughout his tenure in elected office. Still, an aggressive grassroots campaign will be needed to bring a bill to his desk. In the next few weeks, reform-minded groups will contact more than a million Americans urging them to ask their members of Congress to co-sponsor the legislation. If you'd like to tell your members of Congress to support this bill please follow this link. If there's a political lesson to be drawn from this economic crisis, it's that we can't afford a Congress that's not owned by us.