Two senior federal election officials say Congress should kill or overhaul the nation's system for publicly financing presidential campaigns, arguing the current arrangement has not kept pace with the soaring costs of running for the White House.

The system, devised in the 1970s in hopes of lessening the importance of fundraising, provides money to candidates who agree to various spending limits. The money -- distributed first to qualifying contenders in the primary season, and in a late-summer batch to each party's official nominee -- comes from $3 voluntary check-offs on individuals' federal tax returns.

Two of the six members of the Federal Election Commission, Democrat Scott E. Thomas and Republican Michael E. Toner, have proposed nearly doubling the amount that each eligible candidate could spend in the primaries -- to $75 million, compared with about $40 million in 2000. Instead of matching the first $250 of each contribution a qualifying candidate receives, their plan would match the first $500. To help finance the more generous system, they suggest increasing the voluntary tax-return check-off to $3.50 or $5.

"The bottom line is, the current primary spending ceiling is way too low to run a realistic, successful presidential campaign," Toner said. "That's why candidates on both sides of the aisle -- top-tier candidates -- are seriously looking at opting out."

George W. Bush in 2000 became the first major candidate to opt out of the system during a presidential primary, which allowed him to ignore spending limits and raise huge sums from supporters. He is expected to do so again next year, and some Democratic contenders are mulling the option as well.

Democratic strategists fear that, under the public financing system, their eventual nominee could emerge as early as March, already having hit the spending limit. The candidate then would be able to spend virtually nothing until the party concludes its late-July nominating convention.

Prospects for the Thomas-Toner proposal are murky at best. It has divided the FEC, and no one has introduced a bill in Congress to make the changes.

Keep the Faith, but Keep It Quiet

Just in time for Easter.

Robert Carlson, a Roman Catholic bishop based in South Dakota, has asked Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) to scrub any references to his Catholic faith from his campaign literature -- and to stop referring to himself as a Catholic.

The request, supposedly made in a private correspondence, was first reported in the Weekly Standard. The senator and the bishop have long differed, mainly over Daschle's support for abortion rights.

It is unclear what triggered the latest dust-up. Daschle and Carlson each released statements saying it is not appropriate to discuss the matter in the news media, but that they would continue their pastoral relationship.


"Thankfully, we have a very strong country that survived his leadership," White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. speaking on Fox News about former president Bill Clinton.