Sen. Durbin's Speech In Support of Public Financing

In his speech on the floor of the Senate announcing his intention to introduce a full public financing bill, Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin (D-IL) asked his colleagues to think beyond initial ethics reform to a more comprehensive solution: "I hope it will only be the beginning and that we can move, even in this session of Congress, to meaningful hearings and the passage of public financing of campaigns that will truly reform the way we elect men and women to office at the Federal level and restore respect to this great institution of the U.S. Congress, both the House and the Senate. " Read on for the full text of the speech.

 

Sen. Durbin:

 

Madam President, I commend my colleague, Senator Reid, the majority leader. I was happy to join in cosponsoring not only the Reid-McConnell substitute but also the Reid amendment that has just been offered. What we are attempting to do is restore the confidence of the American public in Congress. We have a lot of work to do. The sad and troubling events of the last several years which have involved investigations, prosecutions, and convictions of so many on Capitol Hill and those who work nearby are a grim reminder that there are people who will try to exploit this system.

I echo the sentiments of the Senator from Maine, Ms. Collins, when she said that the overwhelming majority of the Members of the House and Senate, both political parties, are honest, hard-working people. I have spent many years working with my colleagues in the Senate as well as in the House. I do believe they understand that public service is not supposed to be an avenue to wealth; it is supposed to be an opportunity to serve. If you want to get rich, don't run for office. That is the basic rule which all of us understand. Those who fail to understand it unfortunately tarnish the reputation of Congress and those others who serve honorably.

We are attempting through this effort, which Senator Feinstein and Senator Bennett are leading on the floor, to make changes in the rules of the Senate and the procedures of the Senate so we can start to restore the confidence of the American people in this institution. It is fitting and proper that this is the first bill we consider. This is the first thing we should do. Everything else should follow after we have addressed this important ethical concern.

I wish to say a word about earmarks because there has been a lot said. Some believe--even the President, in a recent Wall Street Journal article--that earmarks are the root of the real problem on Capitol Hill. I don't agree with the President. I think as long as earmarks in appropriations spending bills are fully transparent, clearly for a public purpose, they are a good thing.

I have been involved in the Appropriations Committees in both the House and Senate, trying to bring back a fair share of funds to my home State of Illinois through the earmark process. Where some may try to squirrel away or secret away an earmark in a bill, I view it much differently. It is usually a race to the press release to take credit for things we have included in the bill because I take great pride in the effort we have made. This legislation addresses the earmark process. It will add transparency and accountability to it and, in so doing, allow us to return to the earmarks and appropriations bills with pride, understanding we have improved that process overall.

The last point I would like to make is that those who would take bribes in public life are clearly criminal. They have violated the law. They should be prosecuted and convicted for that bribery and corruption. We are attempting now to limit the contacts between those who have an interest in legislation and those of us who vote on legislation to make sure that relationship is more professional, less personal, and that there is more disclosure on both sides in terms of that relationship.

I would like to say for a moment that it doesn't get to the heart of the issue. The heart of the issue is not whether any Member of Congress is going to take money or a lavish gift or trip. That happens so rarely. But there is something built into our political system that really has to be debated, that goes to the real heart of this issue; that is, the way we finance our campaigns as elected officials.

Unless you are one of the fortunate few--so wealthy that you can finance your own campaign and never ask for a contribution--most of us spend a good part of our public lives asking for donations. We go to every one we see, from those of modest means who give us small checks to the richest people in America who write much larger checks. It is almost an imperative if you are not wealthy, if you want to finance a campaign, to find millions of dollars to buy the television and radio time to deliver your message in your State. If we really want to get to the heart of restoring the confidence of the American people in our Government, we have to go to the heart of the problem--the way we finance political campaigns.

For many years on Capitol Hill, I resisted the notion of public financing of campaigns. I had some pretty good arguments against it. Why do I want to see public moneys or taxpayer dollars going to crazy candidates representing outlandish causes who have no business in this political process? Well, those arguments held up for a while, but over time I came to understand that while I was arguing against that lunatic fringe in American politics, I was creating a trap for everyone else who was honest and trying to raise enough money to wage an effective campaign.

The time has come for real change. In this last election cycle, which the Presiding Officer knows full well, more money was spent in that off-year election than in the previous Presidential election year. The amount of money going into our political process is growing geometrically. It means that more and more special interest groups and individuals with an agenda are pouring dollars into the political process. It means that our poor, unsuspecting voters are the victims of these driveby ads that come at them night and day for months before a campaign. It means that candidates, both incumbents and challengers, spend month after weary month on the telephone begging for money.

It is no surprise that the same people we are begging money for are the people who are the subject of this ethics legislation--the lobbyists of the special interest groups. We live in this parallel world.

Today, with the passage of this underlying legislation, we will ban a lobbyist buying me lunch. Tomorrow that same lobbyist can have me over for lunch at his lobbying firm to provide campaign funds for my reelection campaign, and it is perfectly legal. What is the difference? From the viewpoint of the person standing on the street looking through the window, there is none. It is the same lobbyist and the same Member of Congress. The fact that one is a political campaign fundraising event and another is a personal lunch is a distinction which will be lost on most of America.

The reason I raise this is I will support these ethics reforms. They are absolutely essential. They are the product of the scandals we have seen on Capitol Hill in the last several years. But if we stop there, if we do nothing about the financing of our political campaigns, we have still left a trap out there for honest people serving in Congress to fall into as they try to raise money for their political campaigns. In a few weeks I will be introducing public financing legislation to try to move us to a place where some States have already gone--the States of Arizona, for example, and Maine--moving toward clean campaigns, understanding that the voters are so hungry for changes and reforms that will shorten campaigns, make them more substantive, take the special interest money out of those campaigns, make them a real forum and debate of ideas and not a contest of fundraising. Sadly, that is what they have become in many instances.

I urge my colleagues in their zeal for reform not to believe that the passage of S. 1 and its amendments will be the end of the debate. I hope it will only be the beginning and that we can move, even in this session of Congress, to meaningful hearings and the passage of public financing of campaigns that will truly reform the way we elect men and women to office at the Federal level and restore respect to this great institution of the U.S. Congress, both the House and the Senate.

I yield the floor and suggest the absence of a quorum.