Feb. 21, 2008 

Notice to All Presidential Candidates: Quit Playing Politics with the Public Financing System

Reform Groups Call for Straight Answers to Straightforward Questions

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Public Citizen and a coalition of advocacy groups are calling upon all the presidential candidates  – Democratic and Republican – to restore a strong presidential public financing system and help bring an end to a record-breaking fundraising frenzy.

In a series of letters – signed jointly by Public Citizen, Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters and U.S. PIRG – the groups strongly urge all candidates to:

  • Make a firm commitment to accept public funding and limit their expenditures if they are the nominees in the general election, and
  • Co-sponsor or support the “Presidential Funding Act of 2007” (S. 2412), introduced by Sens. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), to strengthen the presidential public financing system for future elections.

“Each candidate blames the others for the out-of-control fundraising that leads the government to serve special interests instead of ordinary citizens,” said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. “But no candidate has agreed unequivocally to honor two simple requests – that they co-sponsor the presidential public funding bill in Congress and participate in the public funding system in the general election.”

For the past three decades, the presidential public financing system has operated well to keep a lid on spending in the presidential elections, offset the influence of private special interest money on the presidential candidates and level the playing field between the major party nominees. Until the 2000 elections, only three candidates – all of whom were individually wealthy –   had opted out of the public financing system in the primary elections. No one has ever opted out of public financing in the general elections, but skyrocketing fundraising has raised strong concerns that candidates will opt out for the first time this campaign season. This concern has been heightened by the candidates’ refusals to commit to the public funding system unequivocally.

During the 2000 elections, George W. Bush engineered the modern-day form of bundling, which has made it possible for candidates to raise more money – much more money – from private special interests than they would receive in public funds. More and more candidates have opted out of the spending ceilings and public financing in the primary elections ever since. (For more information on bundling and the public financing system, go to www.WhiteHouseForSale.org)

In an effort to save the presidential public financing system, the reform groups have asked each candidate to return to the public funding and spending ceiling fold in the 2008 general election if nominated and if the opposing candidate also agrees. The candidates would receive a generous $85 million to wage their campaigns in the two-month general election period – more than enough money to make their electioneering pitches to the nation.

Republican Sen. John McCain responded that he would agree to such an arrangement and make restoring the presidential public financing system a legislative priority in March of last year. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama similarly made public statements early last year and again three months ago that he would agree to the public funding system in the general election, if the Republican opponent agreed, and has co-sponsored S. 2412. Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton did not respond to the reform groups but has co-sponsored the presidential public financing legislation.

Since then, McCain has reaffirmed his commitment to join the public financing system in the general election but has not signed onto S. 2412. He has raised roughly $2.2 million for the general election, money that must be returned to contributors if he opts in to the public financing system.    McCain accuses Obama of “double speak” on his earlier commitment to opt into the general election public financing system if the Republican nominee also does so.

Obama now says that he never committed to joining the public financing system in the general election. But he continues to co-sponsor S. 2412, and he says that he will pursue a deal with the Republican candidate to abide by public financing that includes party spending and independent group expenditures within the spending ceilings. He has raised roughly $6.6 million for his general election fund, thus far, and the most recent Federal Election Commission (FEC) reports indicate that now he is raising money at a pace double that in the primary election of either Clinton or McCain. Obama accuses Clinton of not being in a position to lecture anyone on campaign finance reform.

Clinton has not said whether she would join in the public financing system in the general election. But she also continues to co-sponsor the public financing legislation in Congress. She has raised roughly $19.5 million so far for her general election campaign. Clinton accuses Obama of waivering on the issue.

Republican candidates Rep. Ron Paul and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee have not responded to requests that they co-sponsor public funding legislation or commit to participating in the public funding system.

All the candidates are falling short on a commitment to restore the presidential public financing system and its reasonable spending ceilings. Again, the reform groups ask that all the candidates make a firm commitment to participate in the public financing system in the general election if their opponent also agrees, and to support the “Presidential Funding Act of 2007.”

“It is time to stop playing politics with the presidential public financing systems and to start working to restore reasonable spending ceilings and public financing of the presidential campaigns,” said David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

READ the letters sent to the presidential candidates. 

READ the original March 8, 2007, request to all the presidential candidates.