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Congress Again Takes Aim at Campaign Finance

Members of Congress are again taking aim at overhauling the presidential public financing system. Senators Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Susan Collins (R-ME) and Reps. David Price (D-NC) and Christopher Shays (R-CT) released more details today about legislation they began discussing earlier this year that would try to revive a public finance system that most presidential candidates have deemed outdated.

The legislation would dramatically increase the amount of matching funds candidates received during the presidential primaries. Right now, candidates who opt to accept public financing (only John Edwards and Tom Tancredo have) receive a match for each contribution up to $250, but in order to get that money they must adhere to strict caps on how much they spend in each state. The new formula would provide a four to one match for up to $200 of an individual's contribution received on or before March 31 of an election year. The match increases to five to one if the candidates remains in the race after April 1. And the state-by-state spending restrictions would be wiped away in favor of a $100 million overall cap.

It would become a little tougher to qualify for matching funds under the new proposal. Candidates would need to raise $25,000, instead of the current $5,000, in each of 20 states before becoming eligible. And candidates would have to agree to accept public financing in the general election if they wanted it in the primary.

"In the two decades since Watergate, public financing made presidential elections more competitive and reduced the appearance of corruption that accompanies a wide-open money chase," Feingold said in a press release issued today. "But the system clearly needs to be updated to increase voter confidence in the electoral process by making the candidates less dependent on wealthy contributors."

The Watergate scandal helped produce a new system for financing campaigns, one that established limits on individual contributions to presidential candidates and disclosure requirements for campaigns to provide greater transparency about how money is raised and spent.

The system began to break down in 2000, when Bush decided to give up federal matching funds during his campaign for the nomination. That allowed him to raise and spend as much money as he could to win the nomination -- putting his rivals at a distinct disadvantage. He raised almost $100 million, breaking all previous records.

In 2004, Democrats John F. Kerry and Howard Dean joined Bush in opting out of public financing for the primaries. Bush and Kerry, the two nominees, both swamped Bush's 2000 campaign spending record. Kerry raised almost $235 million, Bush $270 million.

Both, however, chose to accept more than $80 million in public funds for their general election campaigns, though Kerry gave serious consideration to opting out. Few experts believe that either nominee will remain within the public financing system in 2008.

The system has broken down for several reasons, including the increasing length of campaigns and escalating costs, especially for television advertising.

Earlier this year, Clinton became the first presidential candidate since the current structure was created in 1974 to declare she will forgo public financing in both the primary and general election.

Any changes brought about by the new legislation won't have any impact on the ongoing campaign. If the bill was to pass, it would not take effect until 2009.

--Matthew Mosk

By Washington Post editors  |  December 5, 2007; 6:00 PM ET
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No candidates are excluded from the campaign spending limits process. Independent candidates, and candidates in minor political parties, are unfairly excluded from the public financing process.

Posted by: zazmo | December 6, 2007 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Thank goodness for this bi-partisan effort to revitalize the presidential public campaign finance system. It's one of the most fundamental and crucial things we need to do to make government more accountable to voters instead of wealthy private donors and other special interest groups. Whether you want small government, big government, or something in between, the one thing we can all agree on is that we want accountable government that truly represents the public interest. Public financing is non-partisan, it's cheap, it's Constitutional, and unlike many other campaign finance reforms we already know it works.

Posted by: cmrced | December 5, 2007 8:46 PM | Report abuse

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