Earmarks to campaign contributors: Just a symptom of the larger problem of influence-peddling in Washington

In his recent op-ed (http://thehill.com/special-reports/appropriations-june-2010/104029-its-time-for-us-to-shed-light-on-the-earmark-process), Congressman Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) calls on Congress to address the ethically troublesome link between special interests’ campaign contributions and the earmarks they receive. His concern is well-founded.

In the fiscal year 2010, members of Congress secured over $1.1 billion in earmarks for entities that contributed to their campaigns, according to a recent study by two nonpartisan political watchdog groups. As Representative Flake notes, a study by the Office of Congressional Ethics found that a “widespread perception” of this link exists among corporations and lobbyists.

Unfortunately, this issue is just the tip of the iceberg—the total impact of money in politics is much greater, and includes other forms of government waste as well.

For example, taxpayers have spent billions of dollars per year on defense contracts that the Pentagon does not want. In the fiscal year 2008, the single largest defense industry earmark — 588 million to accelerate production of Navy submarines — was inserted against the wishes of the U.S. Navy itself. The defense industry made $24 million in campaign contributions in 2008, and has contributed over $150 million since 1990.

It is little wonder that our national deficit is spiraling out of control. As Representative Flake pointedly asks, where do we go from here?

We believe that real reform must begin with a system of citizen-funded elections, which Congress can adopt this year by passing the Fair Elections Now Act. The bipartisan bill, which has over 175 co-sponsors, would create a voluntary system of citizen-funded elections to provide congressional candidates with an alternative to running special interest-funded campaigns.

Under the Fair Elections Now Act, qualifying candidates could choose to only accept donations of $100 or less and could have these private donations matched with public funds at a rate of 4-to-1. This would give candidates a viable alternative to special-interest money and the unwelcome pressures that money creates after the election.

Citizen-funded elections have a track record of success, with positive results and reviews in eight states ranging all the way from Maine to Representative Flake’s home state of Arizona. In 2008, majorities of candidates from both parties used Arizona’s “Clean Elections” system in the general elections.

At the federal level, citizen-funded elections would reduce government waste by ensuring that citizens, not special-interest groups, determine who can run for and win public office and what issues they address once in office. Putting power back in the hands of everyday Americans would cut back on the unnecessary earmarks and other forms government waste that are often directly tied to our current system of privately funded campaigns.

The Fair Elections Now Act is necessary step to accomplishing these goals and forwarding our country’s principles of fairness, democracy and fiscal responsibility.

Representative Flake has rightly called out his colleagues to acknowledge and address the ethical problems raised by requesting earmarks for organizations that are funding their campaigns. The reforms he has proposed represent a necessary first step. However, standing up to special interests will require more fundamental reform.

Representative Flake and other members of Congress should support the Fair Elections Now Act to end the preferential treatment of special interests and solve the problem of money in our political system.

Paul Silver is a citizen organizer in the Coffee Party Movement. Will Merrow is a researcher with Americans for Campaign Reform.