Money in Politics

Congressional Public Financing Proposals

Summary of Draft Proposals for the 111th Congress

To learn more, please visit In Detail: the Fair Elections Now Act.

To take action now and urge Congress to support the Fair Elections Now Act, click here.

Common Cause and its allies (Brennan Center, Democracy Matters, Public Campaign, Public Citizen, and US PIRG) are pushing hard to get Congress to change the way Congressional campaigns are funded.

We are extremely fortunate to have as our leaders some of the most influential members of Congress. As of January 2009, our lead sponsors for two bills – one to reform Senate campaigns, one for House campaigns, are working with Common Cause and other reform groups in drafting new legislation.

The Senate effort is led by Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), and we expect our House lead sponsors to be House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-CT) and Rep. Walter B. Jones, Jr., (R-NC).

The Senate bill is on a somewhat faster track than the House bill at the moment, but we anticipate that both bills will be ready for introduction perhaps as early as late-February or early March.
A separate bill to reform the Presidential campaign financing system is also being drafted by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), and may be introduced around the same time.

Major objectives of the Congressional proposal are:

  1. 1. To reduce the influence of big donors over federal elections. Under current law, individual contributions are limited to $2,300 per candidate per race, a level far beyond the means of the vast majority of citizens – and bundlers are often able to acquire unparalleled access to members of Congress when they combine individual contributions to present candidates with bundles of anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 or more.

  2. 2. To bring campaigns and campaign finance reform into the 21st century. Thanks in part to the Internet; campaigns are able to reach out to more people and to raise greater amounts in small individual donations. The Obama presidential campaign raised more from small donors than anyone in history, but the trend in Congressional races is exactly the opposite. We believe Congressional candidates could raise more in small donations than in years past, but only if they are weaned from their extreme reliance on big donors.

  3. 3. To offer a system that candidates – incumbents and challengers – will find attractive. Candidates will be freed from the burden of constantly seeking funds from lobbyists and powerful interests. A combination of small donors and public financing will put an end to that distracting and debilitating hunt for big dollars. Candidates will still have to spend time raising money, but for only a portion of their campaign funds; and that fundraising activity will be redirected to broader groups of citizens. Also, by basing our bill on data from the most recent elections, we can provide a level of funding that realistically allows candidates who opt into the new system to compete successfully with candidates who do not.


The difference between the Senate and House drafts is largely technical in that different numbers have to be used – a Senate race requires more resources than a House race, so different formulae are under consideration.

Here are the major elements in both the House and Senate proposals at this time:

• It’s voluntary – no candidate for Congress is compelled to use this system.
• Candidates must raise a minimum level of small individual contributions in order to qualify for the program.
• Once they qualify, they will abide by various restrictions and disclosure requirements.
• Once they qualify, they will receive an up-front grant, based on the average costs of winning campaigns in recent elections, for their primary campaigns, and if nominated, another grant for their general election campaign.
• Candidates will also receive a match (possibly $4 for each $1 raised) for contributions of $100 or less from an individual; no individual may give more than $100; that match will stop after a certain spending level is reached, but candidates may continue to raise donations of up to $100 per individual without a match for the rest of the campaign.
• A new independent commission will administer the program, including the disbursal of funds and collection of reports.
• No contributions allowed from PACs and lobbyists.
• Special provisions for candidates in uncontested races (at significantly lower funding levels).

A few questions and answers:

Why don't we just eliminate private altogether, and make it a program of total public funding?

By their nature, Congressional races tend to be more expensive than local elections, and often get more public visibility. Therefore, it is easier to engage more voters as small donors – and small donors do not have a corrupting effect on politicians; in fact, it can be argued that in large numbers, they have reverse effect. Limiting contributions to small levels, such as $100 or $200 per individual, will make candidates spend more time with real voters and less time with a small number of wealthy individuals and special interests. When average citizens gives $5 or $50 or $100 to a candidate, that involves them more in the process and the outcome, and that’s good for democracy.
Also, since this has to be a voluntary system, we need to make sure that it can provide enough funding to be attractive to candidates – incumbents and challengers. Allowing small donation to play a major role helps to increase the resources available, reduce the pressure on the public funding portion, and helps us to achieve our top goals: to end the dominance of special interests in the funding of Congressional campaigns. The pubic fund will still be critical; without that element, this won’t work. The mix of small donations and public funds will change the entire game in Washington – in a good way.

Why does it have to be voluntary? Why don't we just require candidates to use this system?

Because the e Supreme Court many years ago made that impossible. There are limits on what reforms to can do to curb the presence of private money in elections, since the Court decided that money is a form of speech. Again, this is why nay any legislation to reform campaign finance must be attractive to incumbents as well as challengers. Fortunately, in states where various models of public financing (not this exact “small donors model”, which is new) have been instituted, we see great success. In Connecticut in 2008, 81% of the candidates for state office opted in to public financing – a tremendous testament to the viability of a clean elections model!