Campaign Finance

Monday, December 15, 2008

WITH THE power of the fundraising tsunami that swept President-elect Barack Obama into the White House becoming ever clearer, it's time to confront a possible myth and the new reality surrounding his success. Let's start with the myth.

Mr. Obama pulled in more than $750 million ($104 million between Oct. 15 and Nov. 4 alone) from more than 4 million contributors during his presidential run. That's the most money raised from the most people in history. The story goes that this was fueled by regular people who sent in $200 or less. Well, yes and no. According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute of the fundraising totals through August 2008, the percentage of people whose total donations to Mr. Obama aggregated to $200 or less was 26 percent. That almost matches President Bush's 25 percent in the 2004 election. But Mr. Obama relied less on donors who gave $1,000 or more (47 percent) than Mr. Bush (60 percent).

We don't know exactly who the small donors are because campaign finance laws don't compel disclosure of those who give $200 or less. And this leads us to the new reality created by Mr. Obama's success. By opting not to take public funds but to raise vast sums for the general election, he dealt a fatal blow to the campaign finance system as we know it. When he reneged on his promise to accept public financing in June, Mr. Obama wrote in USA Today, "I am firmly committed to reforming the system as president, so that it's viable in today's campaign climate." How might he follow through? Mr. Obama could start by finding a new sponsor for a Senate bill that he proposed in September 2007 (and that went nowhere). The bill would require presidential campaigns to report the names and occupations of "bundlers" who bring in individual contributions totaling $50,000 or more and the specific amounts they are credited with raising. Just as lobbyists soon will be required to disclose how much money they've given to or bundled for candidates, we shouldn't have to rely on the conscience of presidential contenders to release their bundler information.

More important, Mr. Obama must lead a serious conversation about the role of the public financing system and how Internet fundraising should affect its structure. In an op-ed last month in The Post, Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer championed a new campaign finance system centered around the Internet. He proposed matching funds for small donations up to $200 per donor, increasing the campaign spending limit to $250 million, reducing the individual contribution limit and closing the loophole for joint fundraising committees, which allowed supporters of Mr. Obama and his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), to skirt the current $2,300 limit.

The campaign finance system was born in the wake of Watergate. It must be remade to function in today's interconnected, more expensive world. Mr. Wertheimer's proposals are a good starting point. Let the discussion begin.

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