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Candidates Urged:
Fix Finance System

Six campaign finance reform groups wrote to the 2008 presidential candidates today to urge reform to a presidential public financing system that appears headed for the dustbin this year.

In their letter, the groups urged candidates who were in congress to get behind pending legislation that would attempt to upgrade a system that, in its current state, does not provide enough money to entice top candidates to make use of it.

"The recent published stories involving bundler Norman Hsu have only served to reinforce the dangers of privately-funded presidential campaigns driven by unlimited campaign spending and increasingly dependent on bundlers to raise huge amounts of money," the letter states. "It is essential to the health of our democracy and to the integrity of the presidency to avoid having the nation's highest office on the auction block and presidential candidates engaged in a never-ending race to raise and spend ever-growing amounts of private contributions."

The Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, Public Citizen, and U.S. PIRG, all signed the letter.

Over the past two campaign cycles, candidates have been less and less inclined take public funds during the primary campaign. By accepting public money, they subject themselves to strict limits on how much they can spend in each state during their primary effort. And since it is a voluntary system, those candidates who figured they could raise enough money on their own have sought the strategic advantage of not having spending limits.

But until this election, both major party candidates continued to accept the public matching funds for the general election. The 2008 presidential candidates have offered varying degrees of support for public financing this year. Sen. Hillary Clinton became the first to signal she would abandon the public system -- from the beginning of her campaign she has been raising money for both the primary and general elections. (She would have to return the money she has raised for the general election if she does not become her party's nominee.)

Sen. Barack Obama sought and received permission from the Federal Election Commission to start raising money for the general election, but freeze that money in a separate account until he could decide, if he gained the Democratic nomination, whether or not to enter the public system. More recently, Republican Sen. John McCain applied for the right to take matching funds in the primary as a way to get a quick infusion of cash in the closing weeks before the first primaries. It's unclear whether he will avail himself of the funds, which would give him an initial burst of about $6 million in January.

The legislation that's been proposed by Sens. Obama and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) would increase the spending limits and the amount of public funds available for candidates who opt in to the system. Another aspect of the bill is that it requires presidential candidates to disclose the identity of those who bundle contributions for them.

--Matthew Mosk

By Washington Post editors  |  September 14, 2007; 11:50 AM ET
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