CQ Politics

Public Campaign Financing Proposal Draws Bipartisan Backing

Congressional Quarterly / CQ Politics — Tuesday, March 31, 2009

By Bart Jansen, CQ Staff

Would politicians be less beholden to special interests if no campaign took more than $100 from any backer?

Once again, believers in the power of public financing are trying to make the case for substituting a limited amount of public dollars for the kind of collections that now fuel campaigns for Congress.

On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers started their push for legislation that would provide federal grants to candidates who agree to accept no more than $100 per contributor for each election and who meet certain fundraising targets.

In theory, the advocates say, that would relieve candidates of the need to raise millions of dollars for the average Senate race and hundreds of thousands of dollars for the average House race.

"I think especially in this day and age, when you look at the amount of time and effort and energy that goes into dialing for dollars as opposed to focusing on the legislative agenda, our time is better spent on doing our jobs," said Rep. John B. Larson , D-Conn., chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "I don't discount what a heavy lift that is in terms of convincing people that we ought to have public financing, but clearly the time has come."

Public financing has its fans on Capitol Hill, but also some skeptics. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell , R-Ky., may be the most prominent foe of the concept. He criticized public financing as "bailouts for politicians."

"It's harder still to justify handouts for politicians at a time of soaring deficits, a shrinking economy, and massive job losses," McConnell said.

Larson said the House Administration Committee is expected to hold a hearing on the bill soon after Congress returns from the April recess.

Under the legislation announced Tuesday by Larson, Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin , D-Ill., Sen. Arlen Specter , R-Pa., Rep. Walter B. Jones , R-N.C., and Rep. Chellie Pingree , D-Maine:

* Participants would have to limit fundraising to $100 from each contributor for each election. To qualify for public grants, a House candidate would have to raise at least $50,000 from 1,500 contributors.

* Because of widely varying populations, Senate candidates would need 2,000 contributors plus another 500 for each congressional district in the state. For example, an Ohio Senate candidate would need 12,000 contributors because that state has 20 House districts.

* After qualifying, House candidates would receive $900,000, with 40 percent for the primary and 60 percent for the general election. Senate candidates would receive $1.25 million plus another $250,000 for each congressional district. The funding would be split one-third for the primary and two-thirds for the general election.

* Candidates who continue to raise money in increments up to $100 from home-state residents would be matched 4-to-1 by federal funds.

* Participating House candidates would receive a $100,000 voucher and Senate candidates would get $100,000 for each congressional district for television advertising.

The system is projected to cost $1 billion or more a year and would be funded with a tax on federal contracts. The tax of 0.5 percent would be capped at $500,000 per contractor.

"That amount is a small, token contribution when [there are] many organizations where employees and others put in substantially more money," Durbin said. "I think it's a fair way of financing it."

Similar programs already exist in some states, including Maine, Connecticut and Arizona. Pingree, a former head of the campaign watchdog group Common Cause, said the program would allow candidates to meet with voters rather than constantly calling contributors.

"They don't have to sit in little white rooms dialing for dollars," said Pingree, D-Maine.

The federal proposal aims to ratchet down contribution levels further than even post-Watergate changes.

Congress created the Federal Election Commission in 1974 (PL 93-443) in the wake of scandals involving five- and six-figure contributions to Republican President Richard M. Nixon's campaign, and set a $1,000 limit per contributor per election. That figure was indexed to inflation under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (PL 107-155) to what was $2,300 per contributor per election in 2008 and will rise for 2010.

Specter, who had $5.8 million on hand Dec. 31 for his 2010 campaign after spending $20 million for his last race, sponsored the bill because of concerns about the time and possible improprieties from fundraising.

"I believe that fundraising takes up entirely too much time, and I believe that contributions raise all sorts of questions about the appearance of undue influence — whether it's true, it raises questions — and I think those considerations outweigh the consideration of private contributions," Specter said.

Durbin said incumbent lawmakers sometimes feel attached to the fundraising system that got them to Congress.

"Changing it is something that they usually resist," Durbin said. "That's a factor."
Remembering 2008

The backers of the new legislation hope to capitalize on the widespread sentiment during last year's presidential campaign that the public financing system for White House candidates is broken. Candidates routinely bypassed public financing for the primaries, and Democrat Barack Obama became the first major-party presidential nominee to reject public financing for the general election.

While Republican nominee John McCain of Arizona accepted $84 million in public financing for the roughly two months between the party conventions and the election, Obama was able to swamp him by raising $150 million in September alone.

Obama, a sponsor of previous versions of the congressional public-financing legislation, had committed to the system in the presidential race. But he changed his mind when faced with what he called "smears and attacks" from special-interest political-action committees and corporations organized under the Internal Revenue Service code.

McCain said last week that he would oppose any system that would allow candidates to opt out. "If it has the same effect as the presidential one, I'm opposed because President Obama committed to it and then stepped out of it," McCain said.

Durbin said the bill has been difficult to write because of changing interpretations of campaign law at the Supreme Court. But he said this voluntary version — which permits but does not require candidates to choose the public financing option — would pass constitutional muster.

"It would be a dramatic change from the way we do business in Washington," Durbin said. "It would take a lot of members of Congress out of the fundraising business that they're in and let them be legislators and candidates for a briefer period of time."

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