At the heart of the healthcare challenge, a question of money in politics

When Congress and the President set out to remake the American healthcare system at the start of 2009, they were missing one pivotal ingredient: independence. Six months into the debate and with the August recess looming, the prospects for enacting sweeping reform that meets the needs of 50 million uninsured Americans, and millions more who forego basic care, are fading fast. And not for a lack of good intentions.

We believe that real reform of our nation’s healthcare system is floundering for one simple reason: lawmakers in Washington cannot afford to ignore the millions of dollars in healthcare industry money that goes to fund their campaigns.

Consider the numbers. Since the start of 2009, healthcare industry groups–including health insurers, pharmaceuticals, and HMOs–have contributed nearly $20 million to federal candidates and parties, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Combined with the $150 million in 2008 industry contributions to elect our current leaders, and over $500 million in lobbying expenditures in 2008-2009, that puts the healthcare industry at the top of the special interest pyramid alongside Wall Street banks.

And their giving has been anything but haphazard. In nine of the last ten cycles, industry groups gave more to the party in power. Members serving on key congressional committees with jurisdiction over healthcare reform received the lion’s share of industry contributions, an average of $171,000 per cycle, compared with $87,000 for non-committee members. In a climate of rising campaign costs, where incumbent Members of Congress must raise a million dollars or more to keep their seat, it is little wonder that industries with the means and incentive to contribute large amounts are seated at the front of the room. And the public pays the price.

To get to the heart of America’s healthcare challenge, we must end the longstanding system of pay-to-play politics by fundamentally reforming the role of private money in federal elections.

This Thursday, July 30th, the Committee on House Administration will hear testimony on a new plan to do just that. The bipartisan, bicameral Fair Elections Now Act (HR 1826), introduced by Congressmen John Larson (D-CT) and Walter Jones (R-NC), would put an end to special interest contributions in favor of small donations and matching public funds. If passed, the Fair Elections Now Act would represent a major departure from current fundraising practice.

For candidates, the process is simple: show that you’re serious by collecting at least 1,500 individual donations from your constituents in amounts of $100 or less and you will be rewarding with a 4:1 match in public funds and a grant to jumpstart your campaign. For voters, it means that your voice and your small donation will be worth just as much to the incumbent as that of special interests. For the nation, it means a real commitment to core principles like fairness, competition, and accountability.

Seven states from Arizona to Maine, and more than a dozen municipalities from New York to LA, have already shown us that Fair Elections can have a real impact on whether and how we address our most pressing national priorities. The time for Congress to assert its independence from the healthcare lobby and other special interests by passing real reform is now. With the help of millions of citizens standing up for Fair Elections, such change will come in 2009. The future of American healthcare depends on it.

Daniel Weeks is President of Americans for Campaign Reform, a national nonpartisan campaign for publicly financed federal elections chaired by former Senators Bill Bradley (D-NJ), Bob Kerrey (D-NY), Warren Rudman (R-NH) and Al Simpson (R-WY).
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