The high cost of private campaign funding

By Daniel Weeks

When Massachusetts-based kSARIA Corp. set out to develop a fiber-optic cable repair tool for the Navy, it did not petition the Pentagon for funding or support. Instead, as The Boston Globe recently reported, it followed a far more lucrative path by going to the newest authority on military spending: members of Congress.

In a story that is all-too familiar in the days of trillion-dollar deficits and multimillion-dollar campaigns, kSARIA Corp. hired a former congressional staffer to lobby on its behalf and began making campaign donations to relevant members of Congress. The lobbyist, Bill McCann, had served as chief of staff to retired Representative Marty Meehan of Lowell, when kSARIA’s first request for funds was made.

The result for the little contractor that could: $3.5 million in congressional handouts over the past few years, and another $2.5 million pending in the latest defense appropriations bill – all for a tool the Navy did not request and that is still in prototype form. When asked for comment, a spokesman for Representative Niki Tsongas, the Lowell Democrat who inserted the latest requests on kSARIA’s behalf, called the funding justified in the interest of “creating and retaining jobs.’’

At $6 million from taxpayers to keep 25 people at work, it is little wonder that public confidence in the government’s ability to responsibly steward our public funds is low. But $6 million only begins to scratch the surface. According to the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, taxpayers spent $271 billion on earmarks – appropriations inserted directly by members of Congress and not subject to standard budgetary review – between 1991-2008.

A report by Americans for Campaign Reform found that the top 10 recipients of defense industry earmarks in 2008 contributed an average of $2.7 million each to federal candidates from 2003-2008. In return for their investment, the defense contractors received an average of $88 million in taxpayer-funded earmarks, a payoff rate of 1,300 percent. And in a now-familiar pattern, the largest single earmark appropriation in 2008 – $588 million for the production of naval submarines – was specifically rejected by the Navy itself.

But the real story goes deeper still. At issue in the case of kSARIA Corp., and the estimated 11,286 other earmarks adopted in 2009, is the way we fund campaigns.

Members of Congress rely on millions of dollars in private contributions to fund their never-ending bids for reelection. Private companies and other interest groups, keen to advance their bottom line by helping to write government regulation, willingly meet the demands of incumbents for campaign cash. Free market principles of fairness, competition, and accountability are routinely compromised for the benefit of special interests, while taxpayers foot the bill.

Our system is not so much broken as it is fixed. So long as lawmakers in Congress must spend a third of their time or more raising private campaign funds, they will be trapped in a cloud of suspicion and prone to conflicts of interest that undermine their ability to meet the considerable challenges facing the country today.

To address this mounting concern, 120 members of the House and Senate have cosponsored new legislation for citizens-funded elections. The Fair Elections Now Act would replace large donations from wealthy individuals and groups with broad-based small donations and matching public funds.

Candidates seeking to participate in the voluntary program would be required to collect at least 1,500 checks of $100 or less from their constituents; once qualified, they would receive a public match on every small donation they raise from their home state, up to a competitive threshold in campaign funds.

Although a radical departure from current campaign practice, citizen-funded elections is hardly a novel idea. President Theodore Roosevelt first pitched the concept in 1906 and seven states from Arizona to Maine have responded to Roosevelt’s call. In a time of soaring budget deficits and falling public faith in the integrity of government, Congress would do well to follow suit.

Daniel Weeks is president of Americans for Campaign Reform.

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