“Before Congress can truly meet the challenges of energy and climate change, unemployment, and financial regulation, it must address the perverse incentives that mire each and every one of its members in a perpetual race for private campaign funds.”- Tim Wirth
By Sherwood Boehlert and Amory Houghton
Orignally published in the Buffalo (NY) News
As former members of Congress, we were honored to represent the people of upstate New York in Washington, D. C., for many years. But as we look at our politics today, we are deeply troubled by the corrosive role that private money has come to play in Congress and Albany alike.
To illustrate our point and the need for fundamental reform, imagine that you are a member of the New York State Assembly. Facing re-election and the need to raise an average of $130,000 to keep your seat, you begin the unsavory task of asking lobbyists and other special interests in Albany for large donations. After a number of receptions at fancy restaurants downtown and hours spent dialing down lists of wealthy donors, you have collected the requisite $500, $1,000 and larger donations with which to run your campaign. But you did not enter politics in order to represent a wealthy few.
Now imagine that instead of the downtown fundraisers and dialing for dollars, you can raise the money you need through block parties and community dinners in the presence of friends and neighbors back home. Donations of $10, $25, $50 and $100 are matched 4-to-1 by a state voter-owned elections fund, giving you enough resources to run a viable campaign. Returning to the Assembly after the election, you feel beholden to your constituents and your conscience alone. The lobbyists whose business it is to win your vote have nothing more to offer than their ideas.
To many, this second method of funding political campaigns is all but impossible to imagine. “Albany ethics” is one of the great oxymorons of our time. But this need not be the case. For the first time in decades, the forces are arrayed so that an overhaul of the state’s campaign system has a real possibility of success.
Reform has been done before. For nearly a quarter century, New York City has run a voluntary matching funds program for the offices of mayor, comptroller, public advocate, borough president and City Council. The heart of the system is the 6-to-1 public match on small donations made by constituents.
The benefits of such a system are clear. A recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice found that since the enactment of the match, the number of contributors and the number of small donors has increased significantly. In competitive races, the pool of candidates has become more diverse as more candidates have sufficient resources to wage a viable campaign and give the voters a choice in who will represent them.
But campaign financing in Albany is a world away from these citizen-driven campaigns. Candidates running for Assembly or statewide office can raise up to $37,000 and $400,000, respectively, from a single family, making the voices of a wealthy few far more important than those of everyday New Yorkers. Similarly, by the time we left the U. S. Congress, less than 10 percent of the money raised to fund congressional races came in small amounts of $200 or less and a small fraction of 1 percent of eligible voters were providing the lion’s share of campaign funds. The problem has only grown worse today.
Overhauling this broken system is not only necessary but possible.Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo noted in his State of the State address that we “need public financing of campaigns” and the Assembly has passed such laws repeatedly in recent years, only to see them falter in the Senate. While a public campaign finance system will cost money — an estimated $30 million or .02 percent of the state budget — that cost pales in comparison to the billions in state contracts, tax breaks and regulatory benefits awarded to major donors every year.
Nonetheless, fiscal realities are important and several creative ways have been offered to fund this program without adding to the burden of taxpayers. These include asking attorneys, who frequently benefit from the current system, to pay a voluntary fee when renewing their bar licenses, and placing all fines paid by politicians and lobbyists who violate the state’s ethics laws into the election fund.
These and similar ideas are at work in other cities and states around the country that have long had success with voter-owned elections. We are confident that New York State would reap similar fiscal rewards to those seen in other states when special interest donors are no longer able to fund the campaigns of those who make the very tax and regulatory laws under which they do business.
Cuomo does not have to wage this fight alone. We are proud to work with a diverse group of leaders who have already stepped forward to call for real reform, including former senator Bill Bradley and former mayor Ed Koch, business executives Alan Patricof and William Donaldson, clergymen Father Joseph O’Hare and Rabbi Joseph Potasnik and concerned citizens across the great state of New York. Although our politics are not the same, we are united in our commitment to the simple idea that elections should be owned by the voters, not special interests. The time for reform is now.
Former Republican Congressmen Sherwood Boehlert and Amory Houghton represented the 24th and 29th Districts, respectively, of upstate New York. They are Advisory Board members of Americans for Campaign Reform.