Today the Campaign Legal Center strongly urged Members of the U.S. House of Representatives to vote against H.R. 359 a bill to repeal the Presidential Public Financing System. In a separate letter the Legal Center joined with nine other reform groups in opposition to the legislation.
The letters emphasize the great successes of the 35-year-old system which was utilized by every Republican and Democratic nominee for President in the primaries until George W. Bush opted out in 2000 and in every general election until Barack Obama did not participate in 2008. Both letters stress that the program should be strengthened and modernized and criticize the fact that H.R. 359 is being brought to a vote without hearings or consideration of the legislation by the Committee of jurisdiction.
The organizations signing the group letter opposing H.R 359 include Americans for Campaign Reform, Brennan Center for Justice, Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21, League of Women Voters, People For the American Way, Public Campaign, Public Citizen and U.S. PIRG.
The full letters follow below.
January 24, 2011
The Campaign Legal Center strongly urges you to vote against H.R. 359, legislation to repeal the presidential public financing system. The system has worked well over the years and fell into disrepair only recently because Congress failed to update it. While we recognize that the current system is broken, Congress should move to repair and modernize the system, not destroy it.
Claims that the presidential system has never worked well are simply incorrect. The system played a significant role in keeping major financial scandals connected with presidential campaigns at bay for some 30 years. But since 1976, much has changed in the way candidates run for President – television's role has grown, the amounts of money required to run have sky-rocketed, and the Internet didn't even exist. Yet efforts to update the system to reflect the changing times have been repeatedly blocked for more than a decade.
Just imagine if U.S. tax policy had essentially been frozen in time since 1976. It would be no surprise that the tax code would be labeled a failure. But that is precisely what has happened to the presidential public financing system as repeated efforts to update the system have been waylaid, with only a small increase in the amount of the tax check-off making it through.
President Barack Obama's decision in the 2008 election to totally opt out of the system – the first major party candidate to do so since its creation -- was disappointing, especially for the general election when the grant he would have received was probably sufficient to run a competitive campaign against his opponent, Senator John McCain, who participated in the system. However, because the amount of funds available in the system hadn't been increased in years and some of its outdated provisions, like state-by-state limits, remained on the books, it was hard to make a persuasive case that candidate Obama's decision was totally without merit.
It is ironic that much of the support for this repeal effort is coming from politicians who see themselves as acolytes or legacies of former President Ronald Reagan. President Reagan's presidential campaign is among the top recipients of money from the presidential public financing system. Indeed, his campaign manager, former Senator Paul Laxalt, a stalwart conservative Republican from Nevada, became an outspoken supporter of the system, noting that it was critical to President Reagan's eventual success through the Republican primaries.
Repealing the system would also have hugely adverse impact on the primary system. It would only further accelerate the move to a system where candidates who begin the primary system with their campaign funds well-stocked – either because they are the Washington establishments' favorite, or have well-established fundraising networks or have a sizeable personal fortune -- will have a staggering advantage as the primary season begins. Dark horse or outside candidates like President Reagan will face an uphill battle that will force them to overcome great odds. Such a challenge is not impossible, but the virtue from a public policy viewpoint of magnifying the importance of the "money primary" is highly questionable.
Our political system is best served when we have candidates run on the merits of their ideas and not the size of their war chest.
The Supreme Court's decision last year in Citizens United vs. FEC no doubt changed the campaign landscape and the presidential public financing system needs to be revised to reflect that new reality. With corporations now freed to spend directly unlimited amounts from their treasury funds to impact U.S. elections, candidates face an increasing threat of becoming bit players in their own campaigns. The incentives to pursue large donors to amass the growing amounts needed to run for office are now even greater. Also greater are the incentives to stockpile campaign money, not only to compete with the opposing candidate but also to fight back against potential attacks from outside groups. All of these dynamics are pushing candidates into the arms of a small elite of wealthy contributors or those who run political action committees. They are also magnifying the role of bundlers who can put together large chunks of money for candidates. If these bundlers pick the right horse, they, like the soft money donors before them, end up well-positioned in the next Administration, sometimes rewarded with job, always rewarded with access.
An appropriate response to the Citizens United decision is to promote ways to incentivize candidates to pursue small donor contributions and to give small donors incentives to contribute. A modernized presidential system should have elements such as matching system that ensures that candidates will repeatedly test their viability in the political marketplace. Such a system might also include tax credits for small contributions, which would give Americans an incentive to put "skin in the game", become more engaged in the political process, and provide enhanced access to the publicly owned airwaves. Once the major candidates are selected, the test of success should not be whether the Republican or Democratic candidate has the most money. Rather, the selection of who should become the leader of our nation should be made on the merits of the ideas, the persuasiveness of their arguments and efficacy of their campaigns. Such a voluntary system does nothing to limit speech or to squelch debate. It promotes greater engagement and ensures that the American people hear from the candidates from which they are to choose.
Repealing the current presidential system as H.R. 359 proposes is both wrong-headed and short-sighted. Yes, the system needs to be modernized, but H.R. 359 will empower special-interest money, and set back important efforts to ensure that the election for the most powerful leader in the world is determined by the will of the American people and not the size of a candidates' war chest.
The Campaign Legal Center urges you to vote against H.R. 359.
Campaign Legal Center
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January 24, 2011
Our groups strongly urge you to oppose H.R. 359, a bill to repeal the presidential public financing system. This legislation would eliminate a system which has given average citizens and small donors a critically important role to play in funding our presidential campaigns.
The presidential public financing system has served the country and presidential candidates of both parties well for most of its 35-year existence. The system only began to decline when campaign costs outstripped the public financing provided to participating candidates and frontloading changes in the presidential nominating process occurred.
The presidential public financing system needs to be repaired, not repealed, in order to continue serving the interests of the American people and protecting against corruption.
The groups opposing H.R 359 include Americans for Campaign Reform, Brennan Center for Justice, Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21, League of Women Voters, People For the American Way, Public Campaign, Public Citizen and U.S. PIRG.
On January 5, 2011 newly elected Speaker John Boehner promised the American people "a fair, open process" in Congress. We cannot see how this commitment matches up with the plan to bring H.R. 359 to the floor for a vote in the first month of a two-year Congress with no hearings on the legislation and no consideration of the legislation by the Committee of jurisdiction.
Since 1976, the presidential public financing system has been voluntarily used by most candidates from both parties.
For example, every Republican presidential nominee from 1976 to 2008 used the presidential public financing system to finance their general election campaigns. This included President Gerald Ford, President Ronald Reagan (twice), President George H.W. Bush, Senator Bob Dole, President George W. Bush (twice) and Senator John McCain.
Similarly all Democratic presidential nominees during this same period, with the exception of President Barack Obama, used the system to pay for their general election campaigns. This included President Jimmy Carter (twice), Vice President Walter Mondale, Governor Michael Dukakis, President Bill Clinton (twice), Vice President Al Gore and Senator John Kerry.
The Republican and Democratic parties have also requested and received public funds to pay for their national presidential nominating conventions for every convention from 1976 to 2008.
The Citizens United decision which unleashed corporate expenditures in our national elections demonstrates just how essential it is to repair the presidential public financing system. A modernized system would provide presidential candidates with a viable alternative way to finance their campaigns focused on average citizens and small donors, as opposed to being dependent on big donors, bundlers, lobbyists, and corporate and other outside spenders.
Reps. David Price (D-N.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) introduced legislation in the last Congress (H.R. 6061), and will be re-introducing it again, that would modernize the presidential public financing system and make it an attractive and viable option again. The key goal of this legislation is to increase the role and importance of small donors in presidential campaigns and decrease the role and importance of influence-seeking money.
Public financing of presidential elections has been valuable because it has provided candidates with the monies they need to mount viable candidacies and wage competitive campaigns. In this way, public funding has not only served to promote competition in elections and provide more meaningful choices to voters, but it has also helped to ensure that more presidential candidates have the opportunity to share their views with the electorate. For many candidates, public funding was the source of sorely needed funds at crucial points in a presidential race.
President Ronald Reagan, for example, probably benefited from public financing as much as any candidate who has used the system. President Reagan participated in the presidential public financing system in all three of his presidential campaigns in 1976, 1980 and 1984.
Due to his broad base of supporters throughout the nation, President Reagan was able to capitalize on his small-donor fundraising capacity to accrue substantial sums of public money. In fact, even in 1984, when as President he was seeking reelection without significant opposition from within his own party, President Reagan raised about 60 percent of the funds for his campaign from small donors and, as a result, received $9.7 million in primary matching funds. Most notably, this was the maximum amount of public money a primary candidate could receive in accordance with the law at the time. To date, President Reagan stands as the only candidate to ever reach the public funding primary campaign maximum.
It is essential to the health and integrity of our democracy to defeat the effort this week to kill the presidential public financing system and to move towards modernizing the system.
House members should support efforts to increase the role and importance of average citizens and small donors in our presidential elections. Representatives should not take action to turn the elections over to big donors, bundlers, lobbyists, corporate spenders and other outside spenders.
Our organizations strongly urge you to vote against H.R 359.
Americans for Campaign Reform
Brennan Center for Justice
Campaign Legal Center
League of Women Voters
People For the American Way