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Jan. 23, 2007

Public Financing of Campaigns Is the Solution, Not the Problem; Fix – Do Not Abandon – the Presidential Public Funding System

Statement by Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen

 Public funding of candidate elections is designed to minimize the influence of special interests over candidates and officeholders, reduce the money chase in politics, and help level the playing field among viable candidates. It is the only healthy way to finance the campaigns that choose our elected officials and it’s the best deal taxpayers could ever get.

 Today, several newspaper editorials mourned the death of the presidential public funding system with the decision of Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) to opt out of the public financing system in her bid for president.

 Clinton’s unfortunate decision highlights the shortcomings of the current presidential public funding system, but this can in no way be interpreted as the death knell for public financing, nor is it an endorsement of special-interest financing of campaigns. That is far, far from the truth, and a Clinton spokesperson said so: “[T]he current public financing system is in need of an update, and Senator Clinton would support modernizing it.”

 The problem is not public funding, which is the solution. The problem is that Congress has not modernized the program since it was put into place in 1974.

  Under the current presidential public funding system, not enough public funds are provided to candidates to help level the playing field. Spending limits under the system have not been adjusted to keep pace with real spending in presidential elections. And any candidates who stay in the public funding system are bound to spend no more than those very low spending ceilings, while candidates who opt out face no spending ceilings at all. That means well-connected and wealthy candidates can spend freely, in amounts far above their competitors, while those candidates who want to play by the rules are bound and gagged.

   Instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water, the presidential public financing system must be fixed. It has worked well in the past, at least until the 2000 presidential election, when George Bush realized he could spend far more private special-interest money than under the public funding program. In presidential elections prior to 2000, about half of all challengers were able to rival the spending of presidential incumbents and win in the general election.

   Legislation has been introduced by Sen. Russell Feingold and Reps. Christopher Shays and Martin Meehan to restore the success of the presidential public financing system. The fix is simple:

·     Provide candidates with enough public financing in both the primary and general elections (preferably full public financing of their campaigns) so they do not need to rely on special interests for campaign cash.

·     Allow candidates to focus more time on communicating with voters by providing qualified candidates with public financing much earlier in the election season.

·     Match any excessive spending by privately financed candidates with additional public funds for participating candidates.

 And while we are at the job of reducing the potentially corrupting role of special-interest money in elections, we should also extend a full public financing program to congressional elections. Such a legislative proposal will soon be introduced in both the House and the Senate.

 Instead of speculating about the demise of public financing, commentators should pity the candidates who have decided to pander to wealthy benefactors and beg for bucks. We are shocked by the prospect of a 2008 presidential election in which $1 billion in private special-interest money will be spent to elect our president. Who knows what candidates may be promising in exchange for that $1 billion.

 Congress should fix this mess by restoring the integrity of the presidential public funding system and extending full public funding to congressional elections.

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