At a U.S. House committee hearing on Thursday,
Maine’s top mother-daughter political duo touted the Maine Clean Election Act as evidence that public financing can work.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine’s 1st District, is a co-sponsor of legislation that would create a voluntary public finance system for congressional races. The bill is based on similar systems used in Maine, Connecticut and Arizona.

Maine’s Clean Elections Act was passed as a citizen initiative in 1996 and took effect for gubernatorial and state legislative candidates in 2000. On the federal level, public financing is only available for presidential candidates.

Rep. Pingree and her daughter, Maine House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, testified before members of the House Administration Committee.

“We’ve gotten into an arms race here; look back to when $50 was a lot of money for a single donation in the 1980s and the fact is you wouldn’t even make a phone call for that now,” said Chellie Pingree, who served as president of Common Cause, a D.C.-based government watchdog group that supports campaign finance reform.

She said that when she ran for the U.S. Senate in 2002, she would sometimes spend as many as 20 hours a day on the phone soliciting donations.

Hannah Pingree, who first ran for the Legislature as a Maine Clean Elections candidate while at the same time working as a fundraiser for her mother’s U.S. Senate campaign, told the committee the experience highlighted the differences between public and private financing.

“I could conduct my House campaign by knocking on doors in the rural towns of my island district, attending public functions and stopping to speak with voters along the way,” she said. “On the other hand, my mother was forced to pass up forums and cut short conversations so that she could get back to the phones and dial for dollars.”

The federal legislative proposal is similar to Maine’s law, in that candidates would have to collect a certain amount of initial, or seed, donations to qualify for the public money.

Hannah Pingree pointed out that Maine’s public financing system has made the Legislature more diverse.

“(It) has encouraged many nontraditional candidates to run — from young people and women to working people and single mothers — because they don’t have to have networks and wealthy friends or industry support to be successful,” she said. “You have to question a system where great personal wealth can make someone more attractive to party groups, simply because they won’t require as much funding help.”

Both Pingrees highlighted how public financing makes lawmakers less beholden to lobbying groups who wield power with their checkbooks during campaign season.

“If we had a public financing system, would we really be struggling so hard to make health care policy?” Chellie Pingree asked.

Her daughter said that by severing legislators’ dependence on lobbyist money, issues are more likely to be weighed on their merits.

Some committee members expressed concerns about using taxpayer money to fund campaigns, but many agreed that the current system is flawed.

“I hate that every time I raise a dollar, the general public thinks I am being bought,” said Mike Capuano, a Massachusetts Democrat. “I would much rather spend my time reading a health care bill than having to pick up the phone and beg.”

Similar legislation has failed to pass.

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