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Fix the Presidential Public Funding System

Jan. 30, 2007

Fix the Presidential Public Funding System

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen

Measures introduced today to update the presidential public funding system and reduce the role of special money in electing the president are long overdue and must be enacted promptly by Congress. The bills were introduced in the House of Representatives by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin Meehan (D-Mass.), supported by several of their colleagues, and in the Senate by Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.).

The presidential public funding system was implemented in 1974 in response to a wave of corruption and influence-buying in presidential campaigns – including secret presidential “slush funds.” Its noble purpose was to remove special interest money and the accompanying quid pro quos from presidential elections.

The system worked well for decades. Until the 2000 elections, nearly all presidential candidates participated in the public funding program, agreeing to limit expenditures in exchange for public funds that match private donations. Even for minor party candidates, the public funding system provided an important infusion of needed campaign funds with no strings attached.

Since the beginning of the public funding system, three of six challengers in a presidential general election – in 1976, 1980 and 1992 – defeated the sitting incumbent president. Compared to the re-election rate of 95 percent or higher in the privately funded congressional elections, publicly funded elections have a remarkable leveling impact.

It may be too late to salvage the public financing system for the 2008 presidential elections – early indications suggest that many of the candidates are already refusing public funds. Candidates who opt out today can raise and spend more money – a lot more money – than candidates who play by the rules.

But Congress must look past the current campaign and fix the presidential public funding system for all elections hereafter.

The Presidential Funding Act of 2007, introduced today, 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 true costs of electing a president. The spending ceilings would be 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 to 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 would receive the entire campaign budget in public funds in exchange for giving up contributions.
  • Enhance the funding source for the program by increasing the voluntary tax check-off system from $3 per individual 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 go to cleaning up presidential elections.
  • Restrict the national parties from using unregulated special interest money to pay for their lavish national party nominating conventions.

For further information about the presidential public funding system, its strengths and weaknesses, and how to repair the program, click here.