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Pols cool to public-financed campaigns

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SHARON THEIMER
February 3, 2010
— Backers of public financing for congressional elections are making a new push, triggered by a Supreme Court decision that lets corporations spend unlimited money on politics. Two top Democrats in Congress back the idea.

So why hasn't it gone anywhere? One big reason: Members of Congress prefer the current system because it favors incumbents.


Public-financing proposals have been kicking around Washington for years. Lawmakers and campaign finance watchdogs hyped the legislation's chances when President Barack Obama took office in 2009, giving Democrats control of the White House along with Congress. But a year later, it hasn't budged.


So when the Supreme Court ruled Jan. 21 that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts of their treasury money on election ads, public financing advocates saw an opportunity.


Without public financing, they say, members of Congress will look to lobbyists and special interests for money to counter corporate attack ads. They might also be inclined to cave in to corporations' legislative wishes rather than risk a barrage of negative election ads.


Sen. Dick Durbin, the party whip and the sponsor of Senate public financing legislation, said Tuesday he hadn't thought his proposal would go anywhere without a major scandal, but he now thinks it has a chance.


"This case may be the catalyst," Durbin, D-Ill., a member of the Senate Rules Committee, said at a committee hearing on the court ruling.


Durbin's bill and a similar House measure would provide government matching funds and vouchers for TV ad time to congressional candidates who agree to limit their private fundraising to $100 per donor.


Durbin's proposal would finance the program with a fee on large government contractors. The House measure would use revenue from auctioning television broadcast airwaves and from a voluntary income-tax checkoff.


Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock told the Senate Rules Committee that he sees some merit to public financing but is skeptical it could provide candidates with enough money to counteract a flood of outside spending.


Durbin has only a handful of co-sponsors for his bill. The House version, sponsored by Connecticut Rep. John Larson, the House Democratic Caucus chairman, has 128 co-sponsors.


With a timely argument made in favor of public financing and two powerful Democratic backers, either bill might seem like a candidate for easy approval. But the legislation still doesn't show signs of going anywhere.


Many lawmakers see little incentive to give up a system they understand and thrive in, especially if doing so could help put potential challengers on an equal fundraising footing.


Incumbents raise lots of money even when they haven't had a serious opponent in years. Sometimes they do it to scare off challengers. Sometimes they do it just in case a credible rival surfaces.


They're not shy about asking people to hand over the limit of $2,400 a person and $5,000 per political action committee. Plenty of donors, many with a stake in what Congress does, happily oblige.


Another plus for those in office: raking in cash for their own political action committees on top of their campaign money and doling out the proceeds to other candidates to curry favor and ascend within the party ranks. They sometimes boost their fundraising potential by teaming with others in Congress to hold events and split the proceeds. If incumbents took part in public financing, they would have to give up all that.


There's no political risk in sitting on the legislation. Voters may feel big donors have too much influence, but that doesn't mean they want government money given to candidates, either.


After all, there's already a public financing plan in place for presidential races, and the two biggest names to skip it and rely on their own fundraising for part or all of their campaigns George W. Bush and Obama weren't punished for it by voters. They were elected president.



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