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August 1, 2006

President Should Be Elected by Voters, Not Dollars

Public Citizen Praises New Bill Introduced by Feingold, Shays and Meehan to Overhaul Presidential Public Financing Program

    WASHINGTON, D.C. – Public Citizen heartily endorses the “Presidential Funding Act of 2006,” introduced recently in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.) and in the House of Representatives by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin Meehan (D-Mass.) to overhaul the crippled presidential public financing system. It is imperative to strengthen the program, making the system financially viable for candidates today and avoiding a return to the corrupting influence of rich, special-interest campaign “slush funds.”

    The presidential public financing system was created 30 years ago in the wake of the Watergate election scandals to reduce the clout of special-interest money in presidential campaigns. The system provides significant amounts of public funds for primary elections and nearly full public financing for general elections. Public financing dramatically reduces the need for presidential candidates to seek money from special interests who want access to decision- makers in return.

    “The presidential public financing system worked quite well until the 2000 elections,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. “After 1976, public financing helped level the playing field between the candidates, and three out of six challengers were able to defeat an incumbent. But now the system needs a major overhaul.”

    Prior to the 2000 elections, only three presidential candidates opted out of the public financing system in the primary elections. In each case, the candidate was independently wealthy. Since 2000, however, the list of candidates opting out of the system has more than doubled to seven, including candidates who strongly support the concept. In the upcoming 2008 election, few of the serious presidential contenders are expected to stay in the public financing system. This time, candidates likely will choose to forego public funds not because the candidates are independently wealthy, but because they can raise and spend more money than candidates who use public financing under the current limits.

    “The presidential public financing program of 1976 has not kept up with the times,” said Craig Holman, legislative representative for Public Citizen. “The spending ceilings are unrealistically low. More important, the ceilings on candidate spending are fixed in stone – they are not even increased to match the excessive spending of candidates outside of the system, assuring that publicly financed candidates will not be competitive in dollars raised.”

    The “Presidential Funding Act of 2006” would:

  • Increase the spending ceilings for publicly funded candidates in both the primary (to $150 million) and general elections (to $100 million) to reflect the current cost of electing a president and make the funds available earlier to reflect campaign schedules. The spending ceilings are increased further if a non-participating candidate spends in excess of 120 percent of those ceilings.
  • Provide a 4-to-1 match of public funds for private donations of $200 or less, which means that a $200 contribution would provide $1,000 to a participating candidate in the primary elections. In the general election, participating candidates could receive all of their campaign budget in public funds in exchange for giving up special-interest contributions.
  • Enhance the funding source for the program by increasing the voluntary tax check-off from $3 per person to $10. The check-off does not add any tax burden to taxpayers. It simply allows a taxpayer to designate that a portion of his or her taxes will be used to clean up presidential elections.
  • Prohibit the national parties from using unregulated, special-interest money to pay for their lavish national party nominating conventions.

    For further information on the presidential public financing system, including its strengths, weaknesses and how to repair the program, click here.

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