Christine Stuart photo

Following the state of Connecticut’s example, US Rep. John B. Larson, chairman of the Democratic Caucus, is leading the effort to change how members of Congress raise money for their campaigns.

At a Capitol press conference Monday Larson was joined by US Reps. Joe Courtney and Chris Murphy who attested to the amount of money they needed to raise, under the current system, in order to topple two longtime incumbents.

In 2006, Courtney said an estimated $10 million was spent by both him and former US Rep. Rob Simmons, in the race for Connecticut’s Second Congressional District seat. He said most of that money came from sources outside of the state.

In 2006 Murphy said he raised about $2.5 million and was still outspent by his opponent former US Rep. Nancy Johnson by a 2 to 1 margin.

“It’s no secret why public financing of elections has taken so long to happen,” Murphy said Monday. “The current system is a built-in incumbent protection benefit.”

Under Larson’s proposed legislation, candidates for the US House of Representatives would be required to raise 1,500 contributions of no more than $100 from constituents in their district. The qualifying limit to receive a public grant would be $50,000. Once a candidate raised the money they would receive a matching grant from a federal fund.

It’s still unclear where Congress would get the money to start the fund. Larson suggested it could come from the sale of the no longer used analog broadcast spectrum. There is legislation in the Senate, which suggests finding money by closing a tax loophole.

Larson said Congress will find the money for the election fund, but first it needs to get this bill moving forward. Another detail that has yet to be worked out is the amount of money a candidate will receive from the fund. Larson said that amount of money will be the average spent on the 435 Congressional races across the country.

“It may mean that through the passage of this bill in Washington fewer incumbents get elected, but it will mean that across this country there is more choice for voters in all 435 districts,” Murphy said.

Murphy’s opponent Republican Justin Bernier sent Murphy a letter Monday asking him to participate in the principles of the Fair Elections Now Act. Bernier asked Murphy to self-impose a fundraising cap of $1 million and proposed a limited of $2,400 from individual donors. Bernier also asked Murphy to forego special interest and Political Action Committee contributions.

Murphy, who had yet to read Bernier’s letter, said the Fair Elections Now Act legislation is needed because “it’s virtually impossible to do this on your own.” He said a standard has to be set for all members of Congress. 

Larson, who seemed to jump to Murphy’s defense, said he told members of Congress that support the legislation, “don’t for a minute stop what you’re currently doing because you’re at risk.”

“I’m not going to say to anyone put their own elections or races at peril no matter how altruistic it sounds. I want to make sure we’re in the majority, without which we don’t have a shot of getting this passed,” Larson said.

Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause, also joined Monday’s press conference.

“There are two corrosive influences in Washington. One of those is money, the other’s ego,” he said.

In the next few days a number of lobbyists and corporations will come out and support the Fair Elections Now Act, Edgar said.

Edgar said he knows a former congressman turned lobbyist who is paid $350,000 a year. He said $200,000 of that is living expenses, while the other $150,000 is for campaign contributions to maintain his lobbying interest on Capitol Hill.

He said when it comes to campaign fundraising the lobbyists are not the bad guys.

“It’s the corrosive influence of money and politics that distorts the system,” Edgar said.

Larson said he hopes the bill gets a hearing in June and the House is able to pass it before it adjourns in August.