Presidential Public Financing 2.0

Sunday, August 15, 2010

DURING THE 2008 campaign, when Barack Obama became the first candidate to abandon presidential public financing completely and run on private funds entirely, his argument was that the system was broken and he would work on fixing it in office. "I am firmly committed to reforming the system as president, so that it's viable in today's campaign climate," Mr. Obama said at the time. Well, now's a good time for the president to make good on that pledge.

A measure to update the presidential public financing system to account for the costs of modern campaigning and the new fundraising mechanisms of the Internet age has just been introduced in Congress -- in the Senate by Wisconsin Democrat Russell Feingold and in the House by Reps. David E. Price (D-N.C.), Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Todd R. Platts (R-Pa.). Though it may seem odd to be worrying about the 2012 campaign when the 2010 votes haven't even been cast, the legislative and practical reality is that the new mechanisms have to be debated and implemented well in advance of the actual campaign. Otherwise the can will get kicked down the road to another campaign cycle.

The proposal differs dramatically from the existing system, adopted in the wake of the Watergate scandal. The old system imposed what turned out to be unrealistically low spending caps for the primary and general election campaigns on candidates who chose to accept public funding. The new version would eliminate the spending ceiling altogether. The old system matched the first $250 from a private contributor with the same amount in public funds. The new version would increase the matching rate in a way that encourages small donors. Contributions of $200 or less -- and that is the total amount the candidate can receive from that donor -- would be matched 4 to 1 by public funds.

Primary candidates who want to obtain public funds -- they could get up to $100 million -- would have to pledge not to take contributions greater than $1,000, instead of the current limit, $2,400. General election candidates would receive a $50 million grant and would be eligible to collect another $150 million in matching funds on contributions of $200 or less, although they could accept donations as large as $500. The funding -- $1.1 billion for a four-year cycle -- would come from increasing the voluntary tax checkoff from the current $3 to $10 per individual and from $6 to $20 per household.

Getting this done in time for 2012 will be a hard sell. Mr. Obama raised an astonishing $746 million for his primary and general election campaigns. Overall, spending was 80 percent higher in the 2008 presidential campaign than four years earlier. Much of this money came from small donors giving over the Internet. This is a terrific development that the proposal would only encourage. But bundlers of big checks continued to play an outsized role in fundraising. The fewer $1 million bundlers a president is beholden to, the healthier the system. Moreover, in 2008 Republican nominee John McCain was at a serious financial disadvantage in the face of the Obama juggernaut; the financing proposal would not completely level the playing field, but it would make it easier for less well-known or well-funded candidates to compete.

It may not be in Mr. Obama's political interest to fix a system that worked terrifically for him as is. But it would be in the public interest -- and consistent with what then-candidate Obama promised to work for if elected.

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