Edit Memo: Presidential Candidates and Public Financing of Elections

Angela Bradbery, (202) 588-7741

TO: Interested Journalists and Editorial Board Writers

FR: Public Campaign Action Fund, Public Citizen, and Common Cause

RE: Presidential Candidates and Public Financing of Elections

As the presidential campaign kicks into overdrive, news stories regarding money, politics and the Presidential race continue to appear. In the course of this lengthy campaign all of the major presidential candidates have been accused of doing favors for special interest donors or implicated in other fundraising shenanigans. A second line of stories has also developed regarding the candidates’ use or rejection of the broken presidential public financing system.

With an antiquated presidential public financing system and the insatiable demands for the money required to run a competitive race, none of this news is a surprise. The need to take in enormous sums of cash raises the issue of possible quid pro quos. In such an environment, it’s imperative to ask: what do these candidates propose to do about fixing the ever-present problem of money in politics? While it’s encouraging that all of the major presidential candidates have taken some stands for public financing of elections at some point in their careers, it’s important to take a closer look at what they are saying now that the pressure is immense.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) has committed in writing that, if elected president, he would make it a priority to enact full public financing of elections for Congress. He also is a cosponsor of a Senate bill, the Fair Elections Now Act, S. 1285, to bring full, voluntary public financing to congressional elections. Sponsored by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Arlen Specter (R-PA), the bill would give all qualified candidates public financing to run for office once they agree to forgo all fundraising and adhere to strict spending limits. While serving in the Illinois legislature, Obama supported similar public financing legislation for state elections. These bills are based on successful programs in seven states and two cities, including Arizona, Connecticut, and Maine.

Obama also is a cosponsor of a bill by Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), S.2412, the Presidential Funding Act of 2007, which would modernize the current presidential public financing system.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) has committed in writing that, if elected president, she will make it a priority to enact full public financing of elections for Congress. She also has been a cosponsor of a bill in an earlier Congress that would bring full public financing to congressional elections, introduced by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN). However, she is not a cosponsor of the bill in the current Congress, the Fair Elections Now Act, S.1285. Clinton is a cosponsor of the Presidential Funding Act of 2007, S.2412, a bill that would fix the ailing presidential partial public financing law.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is famous for championing the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, which eliminated soft money contributions to national party committees. In the past, he has supported state-based efforts to enact full public financing, or “Fair Elections” style campaign reform. He supports this public financing system in his home state of Arizona (the second state to successfully enact such campaign reform) and has reached out to lawmakers and the public to urge their support for the system during state legislative battles elsewhere. In 2002, he told Bill Moyers during an interview for the television series NOW that he thought the Arizona system could “absolutely” be a model for the rest of the nation.

However, during this election campaign, McCain has distanced himself from support for full public financing of campaigns. Asked in 2007 whether he still thought the Arizona system could serve as a model at the federal level, he demurred, “I don’t think that’s what we want to do.”[1] He is not a cosponsor of the Fair Elections Now Act. He also has not cosponsored Sens. Feingold and Collins’ legislation to fix the presidential system, a proposal he has supported in the past, prior to his candidacy for president.

Common Cause, Public Campaign Action Fund, and Public Citizen were encouraged when Sen. Obama announced his intention to work with the Republican nominee to preserve the system if he were his party’s nominee, though he ought to clarify precisely what type of conditions he has in mind. Sen. Clinton ought to commit to do the same.

Sen. McCain’s position has been clear that he will participate in the general election system should the Democratic nominee commit to the same. This week, news surfaced about a questionable loan that McCain took for his campaign from a Maryland bank.[2] While complex and unresolved, it appears that McCain used his intention to opt in and out and back in to the partial public financing system as effective collateral for a loan based on how well he did in the primaries. The FEC chair has declared that McCain may not opt out of the primary public financing system. [3]

We are realistic about promises and charges made in the midst of a campaign. We know all the candidates have made and will continue to make the pragmatic choices that best fit their strategy for winning the presidency.

That said, we do not take lightly the question of whether candidates use public funding in the current election. A publicly funded general election race would restore some measure of integrity to an election season marked by record-setting fundraising. It would eliminate the specter of candidates at high-dollar fundraising events just days before the polls open in November. We urge both party nominees to go this route in the general election.

We need assurances about what a candidate will do upon setting foot in the White House. We know that President Bill Clinton, faced with a real opportunity for congressional campaign finance reform in his first year in office, let that chance pass by. We believe that, 16 years later, in 2009, the new president will have an opportunity to transform Washington by championing full public financing of congressional and presidential elections. The bills already have been introduced and have bipartisan support, including from some of the leading presidential candidates. The next president should seize the moment, answer the call from voters for change, and end the current system of pay-to-play politics.

[1] Interview with Jacob Soboroff, available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEZlGOy85BE (minute 1:45)

[2] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/02/15/AR2008021503639_pf.html

[3] http://www.foxnews.com/wires/2008Feb21/0,4670,McCainFEC,00.html