The Supreme Court ruled this week that Arizona’s system of public campaign funding is unconstitutional, but the decision does not signal that the court is ready to reject all public financing for elections.
The finding focused on one aspect of the law, a trigger that increases money for publicly funded candidates who face high-spending challengers. Such attempts to “level the playing field” could discourage contributions or spending from some who fear their money will lead to more public funding for opponents, and therefore they violate the First Amendment, the court said.
The day after that ruling was announced, the court declined to hear a separate campaign finance case, a decision that drew less attention but signaled something just as significant: Not all forms of public financing will raise the ire of the justices. In that case, the court turned down plaintiffs challenging a Connecticut public financing law, leaving in place a lower-court decision upholding the statute.
“It gives some reason to hope that the Supreme Court is not on the war path to eliminate all forms of public financing,” said Tara Malloy, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for regulation of money in politics.
The most prominent proposal for public financing for congressional elections, the Fair Elections Now Act, doesn’t include an Arizona-style trigger. Instead, it calls for a five-to-one match of small contributions with government money for candidates who opt into the system and adhere to a limit of $100 for all campaign contributions.
That doesn’t mean that the proposed legislation is likely to be adopted — far from it, in fact, with Capitol Hill intent on cutting costs and long odds for any new government spending.
This year, House Republicans voted to cut funding for the program that gives public financing to presidential campaigns. That system is so outdated that candidates who decide to participate can find themselves behind their opponents because of restrictive spending limits.
Advocates of campaign finance regulations have no powerful champions in Congress. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has all but dropped the issue. He used every avenue in the law to raise money as a 2008 presidential candidate and then faced a primary challenge from the right for his Senate seat in 2010. His partner in co-sponsoring the 2002 campaign finance legislation, former senator Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), was defeated last year.
Two lawmakers — Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) — who pushed for increased disclosure of donations to outside interest groups make for imperfect messengers. They’re both Democrats and have served as fierce partisans in leading their party’s campaign operations. The lone Republican sponsor of the congressional public financing bill is Rep Walter Jones (N.C.), who has clashed with his party before.
Even former congressman Christopher Shays (D-Conn.), who sponsored public financing bills in the past, says it’s not the right time to work on it.
“Bottom line is that right now the country is facing such huge challenges with the wars — three of them — and almost a financial meltdown that campaign finance reform is not high on legislative agendas,” he said. “And frankly, it wouldn’t be high on mine. We have some serious issues facing the country.”
Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney brought his road show to Washington to raise campaign cash on Wednesday, holding a roundtable for bundlers, a fundraising lunch and a dinner event in Tysons Corner.
At least 100 people paying $1,000 each attended the lunch at the law firm DLA Piper, where Romney spoke about the economy.
“People were excited,” said Lee Cowen, a managing director at Dutko Worldwide who has been raising money for Romney. “I can kind of feel the energy behind him.”
Other bundlers in attendance included Drew Maloney of Ogilvy Government Relations, Nels Olson of Korn/Ferry International and Ron Kaufman of Dutko.
A Romney campaign spokesman declined to comment. The candidate will head to London next month for a fundraiser.