Grassroots Effort Presses Congress for Public Financing of Campaigns

January 9, 2009 - 5:48 AM
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Washington (AP) - Alan Kovacs has contributed to political campaigns since he was a senior in college almost four decades ago.
 
But now he is making a public show of closing his wallet, fed up with Congress' failure to act on pressing issues such as the excesses that caused the financial meltdown.
 
He is part of a grassroots initiative led by Internet guru Lawrence Lessig and Joe Trippi, a master of using small-dollar donations to finance political campaigns, that seeks to get big money out of politics.
 
Lessig and Trippi set up a "strike for change" at Change-Congress.org that launched Thursday night, where ordinary people such as Kovacs can sign a pledge refusing to give any money to politicians unless they support legislation to publicly finance House and Senate races.
 
It's usually wealthy contributors and well-heeled lobbyists who dole out lavish campaign contributions to politicians and hope the recipients will return the favor by embracing donors' pet interests. The new idea is to get small givers to withhold their cash until they get their way.
 
The long-shot goal is to pressure Congress to embrace public financing of elections under a system that allows only small private donations.
 
It's a decidedly uphill climb that will likely take years to succeed -- if ever. It comes on the heels of an election season that obliterated all fundraising records and likely dealt a death blow to the only existing public financing system at the federal level, the one for presidential elections.
 
Still, the idea has some degree of bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.
 
A leading proposal is sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee. It would allocate public money to candidates after they have shown they can meet minimum fundraising requirements through small donations, and then requires that they swear off taking any more private money.
 
A similar measure last year won the backing of President-elect Barack Obama, the former Illinois senator whom Lessig has advised on technology issues. Lessig said he has not discussed the current effort with Obama or his team.
 
"The real objective is to create a system where nobody could believe that Congress is doing what they're doing because it was bought by special interests," Lessig, a Stanford University law professor, said in an interview.
 
Lessig, who gained prominence as a crusader for fewer restrictions on copyrights, abandoned that cause in 2007. Trippi is a longtime advocate of what he calls the "$100 revolution" -- pooling large amounts of $100 contributions, which would go to the first candidate promising to take only donations of $100 or less.
 
He teamed with Lessig to head up a sort of citizens' lobbying campaign based on the same principle.
 
Their group will tally the amount of donors withholding their money, along with the total they have contributed to political campaigns in the past, to show candidates how much cash they're leaving on the table if they refuse to support a citizens' financing measure.
 
"This is really getting people to understand the power they have now, and I think people do understand it now with the Obama campaign," he said.
 
Obama, the first presidential candidate since the campaign finance reforms of the 1970s to raise private donations during the general election, did not accept contributions from political action committees or lobbyists. His campaign said nearly 4 million donors contributed to it. The nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute reported that the campaign collected only about one-quarter of its total from people who gave less than $200.
 
Recent polls show that the public's opinion of Congress is at a low ebb, with approval ratings hovering around 25 percent. Hoping to harness that frustration and the appetite for change stoked by Obama's campaign, Lessig has traveled the country and gone on television to promote his effort.
 
He caught the attention of Kovacs, a 61-year-old lawyer from Newton, Mass., during a recent presentation at Boston University.
 
"The special interests and individuals who can contribute large amounts of money have too much control, and real change won't happen until regular people -- the common man -- are the ones that congressmen and senators start listening to," Kovacs said.