I just got back from the Senate Rules Committee hearing on the Fair Elections Now Act and I'd say it was a positive opening for the bill as well as an opportunity to explain the reasoning behind it and dispel some myths about what public financing would mean for Congressional races. We'll have the video up shortly and Nick Nyhart, our President, will chime in later with his thoughts on offering testimony. Read on for a summary of the hearing.
Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Chairwoman of the Committee, opened with brief remarks on her concerns as to rising campaign costs and particularly the costs associated with television advertisements. She spoke of spending $3 million on just one ad spot in her last campaign, saying it was "urgent to bring costs under control" given the 1200% increase in campaign spending between 1970 and 2006. She indicated a concern with public funding being taken advantage of by "fringe" candidates, something several of the witnesses addressed in their remarks.
Feinstein was followed by Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), expected to provide testimony against the Fair Elections Act. And he did...except most of the argument he put forward (the public doesn't want it, it hasn't worked, it won't work, it's declined in popularity) were arguments against the Presidential public financing system which is an entirely different model than the Fair Elections Act.
Following McConnell were FENA lead sponsors Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL). Specter spoke to his own concerns as to the rising cost of campaigns and just how much had changed in the spending game since he initially ran for his Senate seat. He expressed concern that in our elections money has become "a megaphone" for the wealthiest interests, even as candidates spend more and more time raising money and less and less time on the business of public office.
Durbin opened by calling the current system "indefensible and unsustainable": fundraising has become both a massive time-suck and method of "estranging" officials from voters and the concerns of the average working person. With campaign costs for Senate seats nearly doubling between 2002 and 2006 ($300 million to $550 million), he said, the time has come -- and is in fact long overdue -- to address this issue.
Following the Senators, several witnesses provided testimony both for and against the Fair Elections Now Act. In support of FENA were our President and CEO Nick Nyhart, former Senator and current co-chair of Americans for Campaign Reform Warren Rudman, and former Stride-Rite CEO and major campaign contributor Arnold Hiatt. Testifying against was Steven Hoersting of the Center for Competitive Politics. Also providing testimony was Scott E. Thomas, an election law expert formerly with the FEC who offered both his opinions for and concerns about FENA.
Senators Feinstein and Bennett, as well as Sen. Ted Stevens asked questions pertaining to whether there was indeed broad public support for this, and how FENA would deal with independent expenditures, 527 committees etc. (the provision in FENA for "Fair Fight Funds" to counter outside attacks is designed to respond to these concerns). It was encouraging that their questions had more to do with the scope of the bill rather than with its general principles : i.e. we really have to do something about the influence of money on elections.
Stevens was surprisingly supportive of the principles in FENA -- in fact he said he only wanted it to go further counter the effects of independent expenditures (and bloggers apparently -- he indicated he's not a big fan of us, but I won't take it personally!).
In any event, this marked quite an important step forward for the Fair Elections Now Act and showed that the bill can stand on its merits if members of Congress are willing to lend their support.