Since Sen. Chris Dodd's (D-Conn.) announcement on Wednesday that he will not run for re-election, many observers have noted that passing legislation to overhaul our financial system will now become easier.
This isn't because he can ignore an angry base or bad polling, but because Sen. Dodd no longer has to worry about raising money from the same Wall Street interests he would be working to regulate. As my colleague David Donnelly pointed out in The New York Times today, "unfortunately, the other senators are still too reliant on financial sector cash for their re-elections."
Through the 2008 election cycle and the first three quarters of 2009, the financial, real estate, and insurance interests poured more than $560 million in campaign contributions to Congress and spent millions more on lobbying, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has made the influence of these interests clear. "Frankly, the banks own the place," he said.
Sen. Dodd's retirement, and the freedom it gives him, is a perfect example of why we need to change the way campaigns are financed in this country. That it takes retirement to boost the likelihood of good policy is an indictment of our broken campaign finance system. To change the system, Congress must pass the Fair Elections Now Act.
The Fair Elections Now Act (S. 752, H.R. 1826) would give candidates for Congress the option to run a competitive race with a blend of small dollar donations and limited public funds directed to candidates by individual voters. Candidates using the system could take no contribution of more than $100. Sen. Dodd, a co-sponsor of the legislation, has long supported the measure. "Whether you're a Washington lobbyist or a Chicago lobbyist, what we ought to have is public financing for congressional and presidential campaigns. That would solve the whole problem," Sen. Dodd told an audience at the YearlyKos convention in 2007 (it's at the 12:10 point in the video).
Sponsored by Sen. Durbin and Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), this legislation would put people in office unencumbered by special interest campaign cash. In addition to Rep. Larson, the House bill has the broad bipartisan and broad cross-caucus support of 124 co-sponsors.
With Sen. Dodd's long-time support for Fair Elections, and the new-found freedom his retirement gives him, he should work with Congress to make sure it takes up this important legislation.