The modern campaign finance system is badly broken, if not on the verge of total collapse. The 2008 cycle promises to be the most expensive in history, as the fundraising numbers in the first quarter of this year demonstrated. One presidential contender after another is declining matching funds and raising as much money as possible. Michael Toner, former head of the Federal Election Commission, predicts that the two major party nominees will raise $500 million apiece. John McCain has abandoned the cause of reform he once so loudly trumpeted; Barack Obama refers to the amount of money he’s raising as “obscene.”
But these disturbing developments, rather than discouraging reformers, have only strengthened their resolve. The answer to the current problem is more, not less, public funding, they say. That’s why Illinois’s senior Senator, Dick Durbin–the number-two Democrat in the Senate–has introduced the first bipartisan bill to publicly finance federal races, modeled after successful “clean election” laws at the state and local levels. Durbin’s bill won’t stop the presidential money chase. But it would transform the way Congressional races are fought and won, laying down the most significant campaign finance reforms to date. Obama has signed on as a co-sponsor, calling the bill “a very intelligent approach.”
The Congressional picture is almost as bad as the presidential marathon–and affects far more candidates. The cost of a top-tier Senate campaign has doubled in the past four years, with an average total price tag of $34 million for the two leading candidates. The beneficiaries of such an arrangement are the lobbyists, wealthy individuals and corporations that can write check after check, and incumbents, who rarely face stiff challenges anymore. Other winners include the TV stations and campaign consultants who make big bucks off campaign advertising. “We are stuck in a terrible, corrupting system,” Durbin says. Politicians, Representative Barney Frank likes to joke, “are the only human beings in the world who are expected to take thousands of dollars from perfect strangers on important matters and not be affected by it.”
The McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 was advertised by proponents as a sweeping change. But unlimited soft-money contributions to parties, which the bill banned, simply gave way to larger checks and murky 527s, like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which can pocket limitless amounts. In light of recent Congressional scandals, Durbin and his GOP co-sponsor, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, believe it’s time to address the core problem. After eighteen months of consultation with groups like Public Campaign, Common Cause and the Brennan Center, Durbin introduced the Fair Elections Now Act in March. John Tierney, Todd Platts and Raúl Grijalva unveiled a companion bill in the House.
The proposal is quite simple: If Congressional candidates raise enough $5 donations to prove they are viable and competitive (that number is 11,500 in Durbin’s home state, according to a formula in the bill), they can qualify for public funds in the primary and general election. The need to spend hours cold-calling rich donors and shmoozing with lobbyists and CEOs at closed-door fundraisers would drastically diminish. Durbin knows this world well. As a top Democrat, he has to collect money for his colleagues as well as for his own re-election race in ’08. “I can’t tell you how much time we spend fundraising,” he says. “People would be surprised, if not shocked,” if they knew.
Clean election laws came into effect for races in Arizona and Maine in 2000. The road to reform, however, has often been bumpy. After the success in those two states, poorly worded clean election ballot measures were defeated in Missouri, Oregon and, most recently, California, with the opposition successfully bankrolled by big business. Yet in the wake of the Jack Abramoff affair and local scandals, the climate may be changing. Connecticut, North Carolina, New Mexico, New Jersey, Iowa and Maryland have passed or are considering various clean election bills.
Theodore Roosevelt first floated the idea of public financing in his 1907 State of the Union address. Durbin-Specter is not the first federal public financing bill to be unveiled. Senators John Kerry and the late Paul Wellstone introduced a similar plan in 1997 that went nowhere. It took seven years to approve McCain-Feingold. Durbin says that passing his bill, over the objections of TV stations and well-funded incumbents, among others, will be even tougher. “We’re not talking about part of the system,” Durbin says. “We’re talking about the system.”