Panel Weighs Financing Congressional Campaigns

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The Senate Rules Committee holds a hearing on legislation that would give public funds to candidates who agreed to hold down their spending. The ever-lengthening list of fundraising and lobbying scandals has prompted senators to re-think the way they run for office. The top Senate races last year cost more than $25 million dollars.


For the first time in 15 years, lawmakers on Capitol Hill will engage in a serious debate about public financing for congressional campaigns. The Senate Rules Committee today holds a hearing on a bill that would give public funds to candidates who agreed to hold down their spending.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: The many opponents of public financing call it welfare for politicians. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell may well utter that exact phrase when he testifies at today's hearing. But the bill's sponsors, Democratic Whip Richard Durban and Republican Arlen Specter, argue that with an ever-lengthening list of fundraising and lobbying scandals, it's time for senators to rethink the way they run for office.

Every one of the top 10 Senate races last year cost more than $25 million. Soliciting all that money takes time that senators would rather spend acting senatorial. Specter spoke about it yesterday outside the Senate chamber.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): The point is to enable us to avoid the tremendous amount of time it takes raising money. We spend an inordinate amount of time on it.

OVERBY: You think there's more interest in that now than there was?

Sen. SPECTER: Yeah.

OVERBY: Ten years ago?

Sen. SPECTER: Yeah, and I also think there's the ethical factor. Duke Cunningham got into trouble on that. Bob Ney got into trouble. We're going to have to have a congressional suite at the federal penitentiary.

OVERBY: Specter was referring to two House members who went to prison on bribery charges in which campaign money played a role. Specter and Durban's bill is based on so-called clean election laws. A handful of states have passed them. They're generally considered successful, both in reducing the pressure to raise money and in making it possible for less wealthy candidates to run competitive races. The Durban-Specter bill has a handful of co-sponsors, but not even the committee chair, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, said she's ready to sign on.

Is the Senate ready for this?

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): I'm not, but I've made a commitment to Senator Durban that he would have a hearing, so that's why we're doing it.

OVERBY: Congress actually passed public financing for House and Senate campaigns back in 1992. But lawmakers knew that President George H.W. Bush would veto it, which he did. Since then, spending by congressional candidates has roughly doubled. In 2006 the total was well beyond a billion dollars. But no matter how big the burden of fundraising, it could be worse. Ray La Raja is a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

Mr. RAY LA RAJA (University of Massachusetts): I don't think politicians enjoy spending all the time they do fundraising. But the way they think about it is, when it comes to being fundraisers, more likely they are better at it than challengers.

OVERBY: But the grand totals aren't the only thing that's change since the last time public financing was debated. Spending in presidential elections has gone through the roof, and those are campaigns where there is public financing, or would be if the candidates chose to take it.

This year, all major candidates have said no thanks, the spending limits are too low. Another difference is the culture on Capitol Hill. Money means more than it used to, much more. La Raja points out that besides their campaign accounts, many lawmakers now have secondary accounts called leadership PACs. They collect cash for these packs to give to their colleagues.

Mr. LORAHA: So fundraising now is a way to increase your potential to rise through the ranks in Congress. I'm not so sure they want to give that up.

OVERBY: So today's hearing may be the start of a long debate, perhaps the best that advocates of public financing can hope for.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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