Ethics Committee Report Shows Need for Fair Elections

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To: Editorial Writers and Interested Journalists:
From: David Donnelly, Public Campaign Action Fund
Date: March 5, 2010
Subject: Ethics Committee Report Shows Need for Fair Elections

On February 25, the House Ethics Committee released its long-awaited report on whether a group of U.S. House members had been influenced by campaign contributions to secure earmarks for the clients of PMA Lobbying Group. All seven members under investigation were exonerated. According to the report, “Simply because a member sponsors an earmark for an entity that also happens to be a campaign contributor does not, on these two facts alone, support a claim that a member's actions are being influenced by campaign contributions.”


Quid pro quo is hard to prove, but according to the report, the donors knew exactly what they were doing. As the report stated, “The evidence also showed that PMA’s lobbyists pushed or directed company executives to maximize personal or Political Action Committee (PAC) campaign contributions and to attend specific fundraisers while pursuing earmarks.”


The real scandal is not what’s illegal, but what’s legal. In Washington, DC, it’s accepted practice that donors give money and expect favors in return—and therein lies the problem with our broken campaign financing system. Those with money get the access, and in Washington, DC, access equals influence.


The report also highlights what we all know to be true—pay-to-play politics is business as usual in our nation’s capital.


But Not All Donors Play This Game

In February, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) received a letter signed by nearly 60 major political donors in response to the Citizens United v. FEC decision. In the case, the Roberts Court opened the corporate floodgates allowing treasury funds from these behemoths to be used directly on campaigns for or against federal candidates.


The letter’s signers want elections to be about voters and volunteers instead of a candidate’s fundraising prowess. They are all too familiar with the skyrocketing cost of campaigns because they are on the other end of the line when politicians start dialing for dollars.


In an Op-Ed in Politico, philanthropist and major political donor Agnes Gund wrote, “I’m troubled at the effort and time our leaders must spend to meet their astronomical fundraising goals. With millions of Americans still jobless, and other big issues unresolved, members of Congress should be focused on what they were elected for — addressing our nation’s challenges — instead of searching for their next campaign check.”


These donors know our system is broken, and want Congress to act.


Sen. Evan Bayh Backs Up Words With Action

In a New York Times piece about his decision to retire, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) wrote that Congress should pass legislation to, “expand democratic participation and increase the influence of small donors relative to corporations and other special interests.”


A week later, Sen. Bayh backed up his words with action and signed on as a co-sponsor of the Fair Elections Now Act (S. 752), legislation sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin and that would end the campaign money chase and make our politicians accountable solely to voters, and not big campaign donors. Companion legislation in the House, H.R. 1826, is sponsored by Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.).


Under Fair Elections, candidates for Congress can opt into a system that blends limited public funds with a four-to-one match on small donations of $100 or less. This bill empowers grassroots campaigns and gives candidates the option to run highly competitive races without relying on wealthy special interests.


A broad group of seven national reform organizations said in a statement, “America needs its elected representatives to turn their sights to our nation’s many challenges, and not be worried about the next fundraising opportunity or big donor to court. Sen. Bayh’s commitment to spend his final year in the Senate working to advance this legislation is critical as we work with other members of Congress to fix our broken political system.”


Support for Fair Elections is Growing

The Fair Elections Now Act is supported by a broad bipartisan group of 140 members of the U.S. House, including 54 percent of the Congressional Black Caucus, 71 percent of House freshman, and 65 percent of Democratic women. And away from Capitol Hill, the pressure for Congress to act is growing.


Eighty percent of Americans are opposed to the Roberts Court Citizens United decision, according to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll. According to polling conducted by Change Congress, Common Cause, and Public Campaign Action Fund, nearly 80 percent of likely voters believe that members of Congress are “controlled” by special interests, and 62 percent support the Fair Elections Now Act.


Until we fix the way campaigns are financed, we’ll continue to see PMA-like scandals where well-heeled donors give, and Congress pays them back in return rates that make the most attractive investments look like penny stocks. Voters’ faith in our politicians is already at an all time low and stories like these are only dragging faith in our democracy even lower. If Congress is serious about draining the swamp in Washington, they must pass the Fair Elections Now Act.