News: Paying for Politics

Public funding instead of sucking up to big donors

Dec 19, 2007 at 2:06 pm

Fifty-five incumbents in last year´s congressional election had no opponents. At least one bi-partisan organization says that an option for public funding might have lent itself to creating viable competition in such races and ultimately better government.

Speaking last week at a forum at Christ Church Cathedral downtown, John Rauh, president and founder of Americans for Campaign Reform, laid out rough blueprints to make that option real. The plans would give qualifying candidates the ability to choose to take a set amount of federal dollars to run their campaign. Such an option would co-exist with the current U.S. system in which candidates are privately funded.

Problems with the lack of an alternative to the current system include disproportionate ability to purchase influence and access to candidates, the relative shunning of the general public´s voice and the notion that money — or lack thereof — limits the pool of good candidates, according to Rauh, a former Cincinnati business and civic leader.

While such reform is not imminent, he said that efforts to level the access and influence of big donors, lobbyists and special interest groups with those of common Americans in federal elections are now closer to reality than ever before.

The issue — considered fringe as recently as a year ago — now has the public support of all current Democratic candidates for president and some Republicans. Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) is the most ardent proponent among Democrats, Rauh said.

Though they had not publicly made statements, some Republican presidential hopefuls — Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — have an ¨open mind¨ about the prospect of federally funded campaigns, he said.

One possible scenario would be a match system based on a voluntary public funding mechanism to provide candidates who qualify with enough money to run a credible campaign. Americans for Campaign Reform favors a ratio of $4 in public money for every $1 raised.

Candidates who opt to take public financing would have to meet certain prerequisites to prove that they have sufficient support. Additionally, such candidates would be obligated to participate in certain debates and public forums.

The group estimates that the amount needed to run credible campaigns over a year to be about $1.8 billion, which breaks down to about $6 for each of the 300 million people in the country.

¨Money has become the overwhelming name of the game,¨ said Bill Woods of Applied Information Resources, a local non-profit that sponsored Rauh´s appearance. ¨If we believe in democracy, we´re in real trouble, because we are verging on a plutocracy.¨

Detractors chalk up campaign finance reform as ¨little more than an attempt to limit speech in elections,¨ according to Tim Keller, an attorney for the Institute of Justice. Campaign donations are defined as speech and protected by the First Amendment, according to a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Keller calls it the ¨dirty little secret¨ of public financed candidates.

¨The government´s job with regard to elections is to establish equal access to the polls, not equal access to campaign money,¨ he said.

The Institute of Justice, based in Arizona, is a national non-profit, public-interest law firm that is challenging Arizona´s system of taxpayer-funded campaigns in federal court.

Keller said that the system in Arizona matches a publicly funded candidate dollar-for-dollar with a privately funded candidate.

¨The harder the privately funded candidate works, the more the government-funded candidate benefits,¨ he said in a telephone interview.

But Rauh said the goals of this reform are not to restrict speech.

¨We´re never, never going to stop the use of private money, including what we are proposing today,¨ he said.

The grassroots approach — the stirring up of support on a citizen level — is of high importance at this point in the process, Woods said.

¨Even though there is the support among high level candidates, if it passed in the Senate today, the President would veto it,¨ he said. The only way to strengthen the chances of keeping the issue alive — even with its acceptance among party elites — will be by continuing to build groundswell support that senators will find hard to ignore, Woods said.

Rob Werner, national field director of Americans for Campaign Reform, said the campaign includes house parties, letters to the editors and ¨bird-dogging¨ or seeking candidates.

Americans for Campaign Reform, based in New Hampshire, is co-chaired by former senators Warren Rudman (R-N.H.), Alan Simpson (R- Wyo.), Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.).

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) recently co-sponsored a bill to provide public funding for qualifying candidates who opt to take it. If it passed, office seekers could get a grant to cover election expenses rather than funding from private donors. The bill is in committee.

Arizona, Maine and Connecticut have far-reaching public financing. Public funding has also been enacted in North Carolina´s judicial elections and city elections in Albuquerque, Portland and New York.