"Money On My Mind" is a monthly column by Jay Mandle. The views expressed here are those of the author, (not necessarily those of Democracy Matters or Common Cause), and are meant to stimulate discussion.
By Jay Mandle
The movement to secure public funding of election campaigns is poised to achieve a greater level of national prominence than at any time since the early 1970's. The "Fair Elections Now Act," legislation to implement a voluntary system of public financing for United States Senate candidates is being submitted by Richard Durbin (D-IL). A similar bill is soon expected to be introduced in the House of Representatives. At the same time, legislation has also been put forward to repair the broken presidential public funding system. This bill is co-sponsored by Senators Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Barack Obama (D-IL), and Representatives Christopher Shays (R-CT) and Marty Meehan (D-MA).
Taken separately, each of these is of great importance. But the fact that they are all being introduced during the same Congressional session makes this moment politically very special. Together, these legislative initiatives mean that the issue of how campaigns are paid for at the federal level is on the national agenda. In the not too distant future, the American people will witness a serious Congressional debate over an issue fundamental to democracy: whether candidates for federal office should be given the option of avoiding financial dependence on the wealthy.
With that debate and the discussions that result, we and our movement will move from the margins of political discourse to center stage. More people than ever will hear that national politics will look a lot different than it does today if the K Street lobbyists are cut down to size.
We will not of course be able to make promises about the new policies and programs that will be adopted by a Congress in which at least some members will be publicly funded or by a President similarly freed from the disproportionate influence of private wealth. But what we can be convincing about is that in office, publicly funded candidates will be responsive to voter interests to a far greater degree than current office-holders are.
The Congressional legislation is modeled after the "clean elections" systems already in place in Arizona, Connecticut and Maine. With the Durbin bill, for example, a Senate Fair Elections Fund would be created from which a candidate for a Senate seat could draw funds. Doing so will be entirely voluntary; office seekers will still be free to choose to finance their campaigns from private sources. To qualify for public funding, an office-seeker will have to raise a minimum number of "qualifying contributions" – this, in order to weed out claims to the fund by individuals who are not really serious candidates. Once that is done, candidates running in both primaries and general elections will be able to draw on public revenue. The legislation contains a formula that will allow candidates in larger states to receive more money than is provided in smaller states. The formula also includes a "fair fight" provision that will increase the allocation for candidates facing well-endowed privately funded opponents. In all, the estimate is that the system will cost about $1.75 billion during an electoral cycle, a tiny fraction of the federal budget of $3 trillion. The amount provided will be indexed to the inflation rate. As prices go up, so too will the amount of money available to candidates.
This last point is important because much of the weakness of the current presidential public financing law is due to the fact that it has no such inflation indexing. Since the inception of the system, prices have gone up but the amount of public money offered to presidential candidates has not kept pace. As a result, the real value of public funding has declined. The system therefore has become less and less attractive to candidates.
That weakness is explicitly addressed in the presidential reform bill. In the proposed legislation there is the provision for an immediate increase in funding in order to catch up with the price increases of the past, as well as an indexing system that will increase funding in light of future inflation.
A second very important reform contained in the presidential remedial legislation is the removal of the option that currently allows candidates to enter primary races as privately funded candidates, but once having secured the nomination then to fund their candidacies with public funds. When candidates exercise this option, wealthy donors effectively are empowered to narrow the choice of who will be the next president to two individuals, and then sit back, confident that whoever wins will be safely responsive to their interests. The reform bill eliminates this anomaly by stipulating that for a candidate to receive public funds in the general election he or she must also choose public funding in primaries. 1 The bill thereby presents candidates with the choice whether or not to be dependent upon private contributors. This will allow voters to include the issue of financial dependency on donors as one of their considerations in deciding whom to vote for.
Obviously the introduction of these public financing bills does not by any means ensure their adoption. Far from it. The mere fact that they are being considered will serve to arouse very strong opposition from the affluent special interests who supply candidate funding today. But that very visibility can become an asset for the reform movement. In making the case for public financing of elections, nothing will be of greater strategic value than our ability to demonstrate just how elitist the political system is, based as it is on the contributions of a relative handful of wealthy individuals. The opposition of those interests to reform will help us to make that case.
It has always been true that the achievement of public financing of campaigns is going to be decided by how much grassroots support groups like Democracy Matters and its allies are able to generate. Federal elections have now become a new location in which to carry on this struggle for democracy.
1. In the form of a grant of $4 of public money for every $1 raised privately, an improvement over the current dollar for dollar match.