Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A first priority for the new Congress

The Democrats are in a position to improve our democracy by taking real steps to reform Congress and reduce corruption. The obvious goal is to reduce the need to raise tens of millions of dollars for campaigns and re-elections. This will be difficult since it amounts to new incumbents unilaterally disarming. Nevertheless, it is clear that the American people are fed up with the current system. Nobody likes the mind-numbing barrage of negative ads.

One idea which powerful media moguls will hate is to mandate that the networks which broadcast using US airwaves (radio and TV) give time, say one primetime hour worth, FREE OF CHARGE to all properly registered candidates to make their pitch to the voters. This will eliminate the “need” to raise huge sums of money to run for congress. A second step is to cap the amount that can be spent by candidates on ads, say $2.5 million for the House and $10 million for the Senate. This, combined with a system where the government contributes money to match (dollar for dollar) the amount raised by the better financed candidate, should stop the spending spiral that has gripped our democracy (and forced candidates to raise millions from special interests who they are then beholden to). Candidates could spend more time on writing legislation and less on fundraising (which I can’t imagine they truly enjoy).

To illustrate say House incumbent A face challenger B. A and B both know that $2.5 million is the ad cap so there is no point raising more than this amount for TV and radio ads. Let’s say incumbent A is well liked by deep pocketed special interests who want him to stay in office and challenger B has zero financial backing. Let’s further assume incumbent A quickly raises $2.5 million for ads from special interests, but now challenger B will get up to $2.5 million of matching funds from the federal government. Both candidates run an approximately equal number of ads so the candidate with the better/more compelling message wins the ad wars (from both the ads and the primetime hour of free coverage).

The cost for this would be at most $1 Billion for each cycle of house races and $330 million per Senate cycle from the government treasury (about half the $2.5 Billion spent this last election with all the implied access and consideration owed to contributors that goes with these contributions).


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