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Press Conference With Senator Dick Durbin; Senator Arlen Specter; Representative John Larson; Representative Walter Jones; And Representative Chellie Pingree

Press Conference

Location: Washington, DC

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SEN. DURBIN: I'd like to welcome my colleagues Senator Arlen Specter, Congressman John Larson, Congressman Walter Jones and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree for joining us here today.

We are watching the worst economic crisis in America since the Great Depression. Health-care costs are exploding. Our education system desperately needs reform. And while we consider these major issues, we're fighting two wars on the other side of the globe. At a time like that, our nation's leaders should be singularly focused on America's national agenda.

Yet, as senators and congressmen, we find ourselves spending more and more of our time raising money for our own elections and reelections.

That means we spend less and less time focusing on the issues that challenge our country.

In the last three election cycles, Senate candidates spent nearly $1.3 billion on their campaign races. That amount, and the growth of that amount, is simply unsustainable. Unless you happen to be wealthy enough to finance your own campaign, candidates have little choice but to spend hour after weary hour dialing for dollars, shaking hands with strangers, and hoping that the money comes in.

If you don't attend the nightly fundraisers and hit the phones during the power hours at your respective party headquarters, your campaign message just might be drowned out on election day, if you're not careful. You'll stand little chance of being chosen to continue to work on the challenges you came to Washington to serve, as you spend more and more time as a fundraiser.

Worse, the system we currently use to finance federal campaigns makes candidates far too reliant on an elite group of people: wealthy donors who -- many of them give of the kindness of their heart, but they are the ones that you spend a lot of time with. The result is a public who rightly questions whether those that win the elections in this system are serving everybody, all of their constituents, not just the wealthy donors.

Well, we need to finance campaigns differently. If we're going to bring real change to Washington, it starts with the way we fund our congressional campaigns.

I'm introducing the bipartisan Fair Elections Now Act today with my friend, Senator Arlen Specter. I'm pleased that Congressman Larson introduced the companion legislation in the House, with Congressmen Todd Platts of Pennsylvania, Walter Jones of North Carolina and Chellie Pingree of New Hampshire (sic). The Fair Elections --


SEN. DURBIN: Maine! I just thought about that for a second. I missed it. I'm sorry.

REP. PINGREE: Well, it's good enough -- (laughs).

SEN. DURBIN: I'm sure a world of difference, right?

REP. PINGREE: Yes -- (laughs).

SEN. DURBIN: The Fair Elections Now Act would help restore public confidence in the election process by providing qualified candidates for Congress with grants, matching funds and vouchers from a fund to replace campaign fundraising, that largely relies on lobbyists and special interests. In return, participating candidates would agree to limit their campaign spending to the amounts raised from small-dollar donors, plus the amounts provided from the fund.

Fair elections for the Senate have three stages. To participate, candidates first need to qualify, to prove their viability, by raising a minimum number and amount of small-dollar, qualifying contributions from in-state donors. Under this reform legislation, the maximum donation from a donor is $100. Once a candidate qualifies, that candidate must limit the amounts raised from each donor to that amount.

For the primary, participants would receive a base grant that would vary in amount based on the population of their state. They also receive a four-to-one match for small-dollar donations, up to a defined matching cap.

For the general election, qualified candidates receive an additional grant, further small-dollar matching, and vouchers for purchasing television advertising. A candidate could continue to raise funds, but at $100 per donation per donor.

Under our plan, candidates would really get out of the fundraising business and into the business of governing in much shorter and, I think, more effective campaigns. They'll be able to spend more time with their constituents and their families. They'll be in policy business, not in the fundraising business.

I might add that I think this would be a significant change in the way we do business, and it is not out of the question. Very similar programs already exist in Maine and Arizona, where the voters had the last word as to whether they wanted reform, and they said, "We do."

These programs are bringing new faces and new ideas in these states. Most importantly, candidates will be able to spend more time doing what they should do.

Let me close by saying this. I believe that the overwhelming majority of men and women that I have served with and serve today in the United States Congress are honest, dedicated, hardworking people. I'm not raising a question here with this reform legislation about that premise.

But I do believe that if there's going to be real change, significant change, in the way we do business in Washington, it has to start with the way we finance our congressional campaigns. This has been a difficult bill to write. Every time we'd come up with a great idea, the Supreme Court comes up with a great idea.

This time we stepped back and said: All right. It's totally voluntary. The amount of money that you qualify for has nothing to do with whether your opponent gets into the system or out of the system. So it really is a system of public financing.

"How is it funded?" is the obvious first question from the press. It's funded by a tax. It is a small tax, one-half of 1 percent, on federal contractors, not to exceed $500,000 per contractor. That amount, I think, is a small token contribution from many organizations where the employees and others put in substantially more money into our current system. So I think it is a fair way to finance it.

Let me turn it over to my colleague and co-sponsor, Senator Arlen Specter.

SEN. SPECTER: My interest in campaign finance reform arose in 1976, when I declared my candidacy for the United States Senate in a contest with Congressman John Heinz. The campaign law at that time limited the amount of money an individual could spend, based on population, to $35,000, which was about as much money as I had in the bank from my law practice.

In the middle of the campaign, the Supreme Court decided Buckley versus Valeo, which said that a person could spend as much of his/her money as he/she chose.

And my opponent did.

I petitioned the court for leave to intervene -- sort of an act of futility. But if you check the records of the Supreme Court on Buckley vs. Valeo, the landmark case, there I am, trying to reverse the decision.

I believe that campaign-finance reform is important for a number of reasons. First, I do not believe it is correct to say that money equals speech. I believe that Justice Stevens is right about that. When we talk about "one person, one vote," somebody with a lot of money has a lot more votes under that formula. I believe, too, that fundraising takes an enormous amount of time, which is contrary to the public interest. We ought to be spending our time on the problems at hand, which are numerous.

The other factor which weighs on my mind is the factor of public cynicism which arises from campaign contributions with an inference of potential impropriety, which I think is not well founded, but is a matter of public cynicism that arises from all the circumstances.

This is another bill that I've sponsored, along with many, many in the course of the past 29 years. For years, Senator Hollings and I sponsored a constitutional amendment to reverse Buckley, which would give latitude for legislation in the (field ?).

As Senator Durbin noted, so many of the legislative efforts are invalidated by the Supreme Court on what I believe to be an erroneous legal interpretation. Just have to do a better job in selecting future Supreme Court justices. (Laughter.)

Thank you.

SEN. DURBIN (?): Thanks, Arlen.

REP. LARSON: Thank you, Senator Specter. And let me associate myself with the remarks of Senator Durbin, who's done a masterful job in putting this legislation together.

And I would also point out how proud I am to be joined by two of my distinguished colleagues from the House of Representatives. Walter Jones -- when it comes to integrity, this member of Congress is outstanding in every respect. We've had several conversations about the corrosive nature of this process that Dick Durbin described so well, and why it's so important, when you care about this institution and care about the people that you represent, that you're able to come here to Washington and get about the business of legislating, not, as Senator Durbin pointed out, in the quest of dialing for dollars.

We're also fortunate to be part of a rising number of members who've come to Congress over the last two years, and none more capable than Chellie Pingree, who, as a member of Common Cause, knows this legislation inside and out and better than anyone here standing on the stage.

But it was -- I believe it was Justice Brandeis who said that democracy -- that our state legislative organizations are laboratories for democracy. And Connecticut, as well as Maine and Arizona, passed legislation that has worked successfully.

I introduced that legislation last year and, again, modeled it after Senator Durbin's. We did it in a way that slightly differs in terms of how we raise the funding for it, but those are matters that we know that we can work out, because what's at stake here, we think, is once again returning to a system that brings sanity to a process, where the small donor is on the same level as the chase and hunt for big dollars. It's true, as Senator Durbin has pointed out, it has gotten so that people spend far more time here dialing for dollars than we do focusing on the kind of legislation that we need to pass and the care and attention that our constituents demand.

I'm proud now to turn over the microphone to Walter Jones, followed by Chellie Pingree.

REP. JONES: John, thank you.

I'll be very brief. Walter Jones from North Carolina. In 1987, in -- the State House of North Carolina introduced the first public financing bill that we didn't get passed through the legislature.

I stand here today with Senator Durbin and Senator Specter and John and Chellie and myself in the House side to say that this is all about rebuilding public trust. It is sad in America today when the average citizen -- and this has been spoken to by Senator Durbin before I had my opportunity for -- by John as well -- the public has lost its trust in Washington, D.C. And that's sad, because as each one has said, there are good people here in both parties.

But yet the system is broke. The system is what Senator Durbin and what John Larson are trying to do, and we're going to help him -- Chellie and myself -- to fix the system.

The American people -- I will never forget, when we passed the Medicare prescription drug Part D bill and at 3:30 to 4:00 in the evening -- A.M., we're walking to the Capitol and we're outnumbered by lobbyists. And this is not an exaggeration. This is the truth. The lobbyists were at least two to three for every one member of Congress, to try to get us to change our minds. I was one of 25 Republicans to vote no on that bill.

Another issue, very quickly. I was challenged in the primary last year in North Carolina because of my position on Iraq. And I never will forget driving home when my consultant had heard -- I don't know how -- that I was going to join Carolyn Maloney in the bill to bring sunshine to our credit card charges.

And I was reminded, well, if you join this bill, you might not get some support.

Well, I used a word I won't use today. But it started with a H and it ended with an L. I said, to hell with that. (Laughter.) How about doing something right for the people?

I want to compliment you, Senator and my friend Representative John Larson. Thank you for bringing this to the forefront. If nothing else happens, let's show the people of this country that we care about integrity in Washington, D.C. We care about a process that's fair.

You don't have to be rich. You don't have to owe yourself to a PAC or to a special interest group; that you can participate in the process by going back to your district and say, help us raise some money; help me go to Congress; help me go to the Senate.

So I know you want to ask questions. And Chellie wants to speak. She's done a great job on this whole issue in the State of Maine. And I'd just close by saying this very quickly. This is people's legislation. This is the people's legislation. This is the people's Congress. And we need to return it to the people.

Thank you.

REP. PINGREE: Well, thank you very much. I am honored to be here with my distinguished and far more experienced colleagues. And I thank you very much for giving me this opportunity to stand here with all of you.

I have some prepared remarks. But most of these things have already been said. I'm happy to hand them out to any of you who would be interested. And we'll post them on our website. But let me just share two quick stories, to let you know how excited I am to actually be a member of Congress and to be standing here today, as this bill is put forward and introduced.

As you heard, Maine has been a pioneer in this legislation. Since 2000, we have a system called Clean Elections. I served in the state legislature. I was part of the fight to make sure we won this, up through the courts. And I had the great privilege over time not of actually running under this myself.

But when I first ran for federal office and first did all the things that we're talking about today, got in there, dialed for dollars, called people all over the country who knew me, who didn't know me, who had never heard of me, and said, hey, can you put some money in my campaign? I'm running for national office. I need your help.

There I was in a little white room, like everybody is today, because it's the last day of the quarter, and trying to find a way to get to Washington. Well, at exactly the same moment, my daughter, who was 26 years of age, decided she would run for the state legislature. And we had just implemented Clean Elections.

So she went around and got the number of contributing -- the qualifying contributions that she needed. She got those people to sign up and say, yes, I want you to run for office. And then she didn't have to raise another dime.

She came under the system that we're modifying here for Congress today. And you know what she spent her time doing, in that campaign, while I was locked in a little white room? She went to grocery stores, to fish piers. She knocked on the doors of every person in that district that she wanted to represent.

She talked to everybody, not just somebody who could make a contribution, not just somebody who knew about the cocktail party. She got to talk to everybody in that district. And she won. And she went on to serve for four terms.

She's currently the youngest speaker of the House in the country, woman speaker of the House, second woman speaker of the House in Maine. And I couldn't be more proud of what she's been able to do, of the people she's been able to recruit, to run for office, young people, people from minority communities, people who never thought they would have a chance to represent the people who were their friends and neighbors.

But you know what? They can run today because they don't have to know a lot of people with a lot of money. They don't have to spend all their time, in a little white room, dialing for dollars. They don't have to think about what special interest is going to donate to their campaign.

And I want to tell you a story that my daughter Hannah said to me, when she had gotten elected to office and she served on the Appropriations Committee. And 80 percent of our state legislators in Maine now use this system; Republicans and Democrats.

And she said, you know, Mom, it was a great thing. I was sitting on the Appropriations Committee, watching people testify. And I never once had to think, did they write me a check or not?

She just had to say, was it a good idea? That's what people want of us. That's the way democracy should work. The way we do it now is no way to run a democracy.

I am proud to be a freshman member of this Congress, many of us who ran on reform, who said that we didn't want our earmark request to be tied to some contribution, who said that we didn't want to spend all of our time, in little white rooms, talking to those special interests that come before our committee or don't.

We are so proud to stand up here today and say, it's about time we change our democracy. I'm honored to have these much more experienced members saying, just like I am, we've got to do something differently.

I'm honored to come from Maine, where we have proven that this is a model that can work for both parties. And I look forward to seeing this bill, not only before a committee but for final passage, before the Congress, and on the president's desk.

So thank you very much for including me.

SEN. DURBIN: Thank you.

Any questions?

Q Senator, there was some talk about a lobbyist ban in this bill. I wonder, did you guys end up banning lobbyists?

SEN. DURBIN: No, but we've limited them to 100 bucks in --

Q Right.

(Off mike.)

SEN. DURBIN: Well, I think, it was incorrectly reported. I don't know which paper you're for. But there was one paper that incorrectly reported that there was a ban. And I don't believe it was ever included in the bill.

Q It was my paper. That's why I ask. (Laughter.)

SEN. DURBIN: I was trying to protect you. (Laughter.)

Q No, no, no. I talked to -- (off mike) -- today and said -- you know, they said -- (off mike) -- we told you the wrong thing. But I just wanted to check. Had you considered that? I mean, was that part of the mix, or was that --

SEN. DURBIN: No. No, not really. Not really.

Q Senator, you mentioned that this is something that's been introduced before. Is there something different about this year, this Congress, the current state of the country, that makes you think that this has a better chance than it's had before?

SEN. DURBIN: Well, as I said, first we had to rewrite the bill in light of Supreme Court decisions. And I think this one very faithfully holds by the lines that were drawn in the last Supreme Court decision on the subject. And I think it can pass constitutional testing.

But let's be real honest. There's been a pretty significant change in this country over the last five or six months. I really sense an appetite across this country for real change.

And, you know, there were a lot of ethical considerations that went into the passage of the rules in the House and Senate. And I've always said that most people who really understand Washington understand that we live by two standards. Yes, it is true that we can't let a lobbyist buy us a dinner, it is true that we're limited when it comes to gifts and so forth, unless that lobbyist is gathering friends to give contributions to your campaign.

And that, I think, is something that is lost on the population of America, how you can say on one hand you won't deal with these people, and on the other hand, be so beholden to them when it comes to campaign financing and fundraising.

So I think there is a real appetite in this country for change. I really do. And the fact that this is bipartisan is an indication that maybe both sides of the aisle are coming to that conclusion.

Q You've been trying to pass this reform for a long time.


Q And but it seems like this time you're focusing on the issue of time, how much time people spend fundraising and not doing their job. I mean, what has made you focus on that? And do you think that will help it be more bipartisan?

SEN. DURBIN: Well, two things. First, it's time that could be better spent, as Chellie tells the story about her daughter. It is much better to spend your time, you know, out meeting the people you want to represent. And you also meet a different group of people. I don't want to take anything away from my kind and generous contributors. God bless them. But the fact is that they kind of live at a different level in this economy than most of the folks that vote for me.

And I think, you know, at our peril -- I mean, I can have people come up to me at a fundraiser, did recently, and say, "You know, it's a shame about that AIG thing. It gives rich people like us a bad name." And I'm thinking, yeah, right. And if we spent a little more time with folks that aren't as wealthy, I think it's better for us and for the system.

So I think that's one of the pluses here. Plus we have a big agenda here. And I can't tell you -- I don't want to embarrass anybody, but I'm sure it's true on both sides of the aisle -- if you only knew how much time we spend either raising money or talking about raising money or begging people to take national trips to raise money, it's just nothing short of amazing how much.

Q There was also a concern in the fall about bundlers; that even if you had a small limit for legal contributions, that people can stick them together into big sums of money. Do you think you get around that with --

SEN. DURBIN: Well, what's the number now, $2,400 per election?

So a person can give up to $4,800 for a primary and a general.

And we limit it to $200. So, you know, it -- you'd have to get a whole bunch of folks to bundle to get up to the amount that they can currently give as individuals today. I just don't think it's a big issue if a hundred dollars is the top donation.

Q So that's a hundred -- (off mike) -- question -- (off mike) -- a hundred dollars for the primary and for the general, so it's 200 (dollars)?

SEN. DURBIN: Each. Mm-hmm. (Affirmation.)

Q The question is, how much -- what kind of a role will President Obama play in -- (off mike)?

SEN. DURBIN: Well, I hope he can help us, because he supported the bill when I originally introduced it. And I hope he can help. But we have to do our work here in the House and the Senate. I don't think we can count on the president to bring this (bow/bowl ?) across the line.

REP. LARSON: And his own campaign demonstrates the fact, clearly, that small donors matter. And as Chellie pointed out, over the last two Congresses, in the House, we've ushered in a number of reform-oriented members of Congress who ran on change. This is a systemic and important fundamental change, and we have a model. We have states that have done it successfully, but we also had a president that basically got out there and demonstrated how you could go after the small donor. And we would like to restore that same kind of small-donor pride throughout the country.

REP. JONES: Can I make just one quick statement? There are two sides to this issue. There are a lot of lobbyists that do resent the fact that they get so many calls that we've made reference to today. In North Carolina -- not the '87 bill -- but we put in an ethics bill in the late '80s that eliminated fundraising during the long session of the session in North Carolina.

And I will tell you that the members of the house and senate in North Carolina have learned that during that period of time of the long session, when they get most of the legislation introduced that they have to deal with, they don't miss it at all.

This is the whole issue. That's been said -- this is to bring government back to the people. And this bill introduced in the House and in the Senate can start that debate, and possibly move forward and make the people of this country understand that we do care about how we have to raise money in Washington.

REP. LARSON: Spoke to Chairman Brady today, and we anticipate that as soon as we get back from the break that we'll have a hearing on this bill in the House of Representatives. And look forward to moving forward.

Thank you very much.

Q Thanks.

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