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Public Financing Reform Languishes

Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) announcement today that he would forgo public financing for his general election campaign looks unlikely to spur congressional reform of the funding system, despite widespread concern that the current setup simply doesn't work.

A bill to overhaul the system, dubbed the Presidential Funding Act of 2007, has been languishing in both the House and Senate since last year, with little prospect of movement. That's despite the fact that the list of the bill's sponsors in the Senate reads like a who's who of past and current presidential candidates -- including Obama. In addition to the Illinois Senator, who signed onto the measure when it was introduced in December, Democratic Sens. Joe Biden (Del.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Christopher Dodd (Conn.), and John Kerry (Mass.) are also sponsors.

The measure was authored by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).

"This is not a good decision," Feingold said in a statement today. "While the current public financing system for the presidential primaries is broken, the system for the general election is not. The entire system must be updated."

The bill would boost the matching rates for public funding of primary campaigns, require those who want public money for the general election to also take it in the primary and boost the spending limits for candidates who take public money if their opponents don't (so if the bill were law, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) would be allowed to spend more money because Obama is opting-out). It would increase to $100 million the amount available to each general election candidate, and would then index that number to inflation. It would also boost the amount candidates could spend during the primaries and lift the limits on primary spending in individual states, but would cap the total that political parties could spend on the presidential race.

Over on the House side, the companion measure has attracted 10 sponsors, and like the Senate bill, hasn't gone anywhere. The bill's backers see Obama's move as more evidence that the system isn't working.

Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), the measure's lead sponsor, said, "Given the overall situation [Obama] finds himself in, this is an understandable decision and certainly a legitimate decision. If a more viable public financing system were in place the decision would be different."

Price said he wasn't sure what the future holds for his measure, but Obama's move "adds to the evidence that candidates are simply not finding the present system viable."

"I am just increasingly concerned about the funding of, and cost of, presidential races," said Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), a sponsor of the bill. "We ought to have a system that will work and be attractive enough to candidates that they won't opt out."

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), another sponsor, said he was also concerned about the system but that Obama's decision wasn't necessarily at odds with the spirit of public financing.

"I think what he has done is to still allow the public to finance" his campaign, Cummings said, pointing out that Obama has raised enormous amounts of money from small donors. "In a sense you have more people participating."

Regardless of what each side thinks of Obama's move, there's little reason to believe a reform bill can get moving this year, since Democrats wouldn't be interested in holding hearings that might make their presidential candidate -- who is running on a reformist platform -- look bad. But that doesn't mean Democrats are necessarily happy with the long-term implications of Obama's move.

"If I didn't have concerns for the system I wouldn't have filed a bill to change it," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), another sponsor. But does Frank think Obama's decision will provide fresh momentum behind reform efforts? "Unfortunately, no."

By Ben Pershing  |  June 19, 2008; 5:28 PM ET
Categories:  2008 Campaign , Fundraising Circuit  
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