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Barack Obama’s recent rejection of public funding for his presidential campaign has elicited criticism from the Republicans, the media, and "good government" campaign finance reformers.

Many of the commentators on this matter have gone so far as to state that Obama’s decision is the "death" of public financing.  I do agree that public financing – and, perhaps, even much of campaign finance reform itself – is either dead or dying.  However, I do not think that Barack Obama is to blame for this situation.  Nor, for that matter, do I think it is necessarily a bad thing, because other ideas – ones more suited for the political realities of the 21st century – might be better than the current system.

Follow me below the fold to hear them.

I don’t want to delve too deeply into the problems of the current regimes of public financing and campaign finance reform.  Others, such as Kos, have already done so, and are also much more qualified to talk about the issue than I am.

I will say that I have been a supporter of both public financing, and campaign finance reform, in the past.  Had I been alive when the initial public finance system was set up, I likely would have supported it.  I did support McCain-Feingold when it initially passed.  While not perfect, these things were a necessary evil at the time.  Indeed, they may, to a certain extent, remain a necessary evil today, as the "alternate system" that is being created by the Internet has neither fully developed, nor has been fully utilized.

However, the public funding system, and our current system for the regulation of campaign finance, both have major flaws.  Accepting public funding, for example, puts a candidate in a straight jacket when facing the massive amounts of money that can still be raised by the political parties themselves, as well as by 527s.  Any candidate saddled with public financing is asked, in essence, to wage a fight against a superior enemy, with one hand tied behind their back.  In recent years, this has been a major problem for the Democrats, especially.  Even today, as Senator Obama leads Senator McCain in personal contributions, the Republicans have an advantage in those other areas.

This – the failure of the system itself to provide a viable option for candidates – is why public funding is dead.  Senator Obama’s decision was merely the final nail in the coffin.

As for the regulation of campaign finance: While the transparency it helps provide is, I would argue, a necessity, and while I do think there’s a role for government in helping to level the playing field, regulations such as McCain-Feingold can be confusing and overly burdensome.  I’ll leave it to an excerpt from Kos to explain some of the problems:

Have any of you looked into running for office? The regulations that control a candidacy are so complex and onerous that it necessarily requires high-priced legal assistance to navigate successfully. If you can't afford a lawyer from the first day of your campaign, don't bother applying. And tell me, who exactly is it that can afford expensive legal help from day one? Not your average Joe or Jane. So right off the bat, the regulations have excluded most of the riff raff. The elite love it.

Second of all, CFR requires all sorts of "firewalls" between campaign committees, party committees, state, local and federal party committees, and outside groups. "Coordination" is more often a sin than a virtue, sure to bring down the wrath of the law. It's so absurd, that party committees like the DCCC have to firewall parts of their building so people can't come into contact with each other, depending on where and how they're spending their dollars.

Why is this a problem? In a sane system, if someone conducts a poll on a race, it should be shared by everyone involved. Field staff, administrative staff, state, local and federal parties, the campaigns, and even outside groups should all be able to talk to each other and ensure there is no duplication of effort. With less duplication, you need less money. And isn't "less money" the holy grail of the so-called reformers?

In short, as Kos argues, McCain-Feingold can sometimes act as a barrier to the participation of average citizens in elections, rather than something that evens out the playing field for them.  Making it harder for anyone outside of the "elite" to make their mark in politics  when "good" reforms would give "average" citizens more of a chance to do so.  At the same time, McCain-Feingold, by creating inefficiencies, may actually require more money to be raised in politics over-all, deepening the reliance on "big money" donors.

Fortunately, today, the Internet is becoming the great leveler, the way for citizens at a grassroots level to contribute to campaigns.  By taking advantage of the internet, Obama has, in essence, set up an "alternative" public financing system, where he can rely on $100 from a nurse in California, and $150 from an accountant in Massachusetts, and $500 from a forklift operator in Pennsylvania, thus helping to increase the public influence over his campaign.  And, allowing him to cut out lobbyist money.

As powerful as this new system is, however, it has yet to be fully developed.  There are a few things that the government could do to help flesh out the new system, and encourage the influence and usefulness of small contributions.  With time, these proposals could even level the playing field enough to allow the more draconian restrictions of laws like McCain-Feingold to be loosened.

In my mind, public funding and campaign finance reform for the 21st century should include:

Liberty Cash for every citizen.  Under the idea behind "Liberty Cash," each campaign season every citizen would be granted "control" of a predetermined amount of federal money.  They could choose to allocate this money to the federal candidate(s) of their choice. Not having to dig into their own pockets for contributions would likely increase the chances of middle class, and even lower class, citizens of becoming involved in the "funding" aspect of campaigns.  The fact that every citizen, regardless of income level, would have some money to distribute would elevate the importance of "regular people" in the political process.

The exact details of this would need some hammering out.  However, with time, the Internet could adapt to "Liberty Cash," and perhaps there could be an option on the fundraising page of each candidate that allows individuals to allocate their Liberty Cash through the campaign site.

2-1, or even 3-1, federal matching funds for small contributions.  These matching funds would apply to any small contribution of your own money (i.e., outside of what you allocate from your "Liberty Cash").  Simply put, for every $1 of your own money that you put into a campaign, up to, say $500, the government matches you with $2 or $3.  This would greatly increase the influence of the small donors who are rising to power via the Internet, and, again elevate the importance of average citizens.

Free or reduced TV and radio air time for candidates. The mere existence of TV and radio stations as viable commercial entities rely on government.  This is because the federal government sinks thousands upon thousands of dollars each year into regulating the radio frequency spectrum, to make sure that when you change your TV to channel 11, you actually see the network entitled to that frequency, rather than someone pirating it.  

This makes the "airwaves" a public good.  Yet, the public service requirements for radio and television have actually been loosened substantially over the past decades.  Paid time for candidates would be a good place to start reversing this trend.

This is, perhaps, the most unlikely of all of my proposals.  Progressives and reformers have tried for this in the past, and failed, because it steps on too many of the toes of the country’s most powerful.

Nevertheless, a future Democratic administration – especially one with large Democratic congressional majorities - should make a try at this again.  TV and radio costs are some of the most expensive for a campaign, and reducing them significantly would be a big boost to "people powered" candidates.  

Free or reduced airtime was a good idea in the 20th century, even if it never passed, and it remains a good idea in the 21st.


Others have suggested all of these proposals before me, although I have forgotten where they originated.  My apologies for not being able to cite their origins.  I bring them up not to try to take credit for them, but merely in the hope that, perhaps, as grassroots activists, we could signal to a future Democratic president our wishes to see these reforms enacted.

Furthermore, it should also be noted that all of these proposals would likely prove incapable of totally purging the disproportionate influence of "big money."  Nor would a system relying on the proposals I cite above be able to totally avoid corruption.  For that reason, the government will need to continue playing a role in providing transparency and oversight in the realm of campaign finance, even if a more level playing field allows for some flexibility to current laws.

Nevertheless, all of those proposals, if adopted, would help to create a more level playing field than what we have today, by increasing the influence of "regular citizens" and "citizen activists" in government.  By building upon the role that such individuals have gained via the internet, these reforms are much more suited for the politics of the 21st century than the clunky, "elite reforms" that Kos and others have criticized so thoroughly on this site.

America has changed in many ways over the past decade, in order to meet the new realities facing our nation.  Every person, and every institution, has had to adapt to these realities.  Government, and the realms of public funding and campaign finance reform, must also change to meet new realities, lest they become irrelevant.

Originally posted to WayneNight on Thu Jun 26, 2008 at 06:27 PM PDT.


Which idea is the best for 21st century campaign reform?

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tips/Flames (4+ / 0-)

    Any other ideas for improving public funding in this country – or for improving the ideas I list here - are welcome.

    Also: Again, my apologies for not remembering where I initially heard of these reforms, especially the matching funds and the "Liberty Cash" (which may very well be called something else by whoever initially thought of it).

    I think I may have heard of these ideas through various issues of The American Prospect.  But, I read about them so long ago that their exact origins escape my memory.  Were I writing a term paper for college, I suppose I would have to try to dig up my sources.  But, hopefully, simply noting that they were not my ideas is enough for an entry on DailyKos.

    The best thing about having a poor memory: Every day you get to meet new people, go to new places, and experience new things...

  •  I Don't Get It (0+ / 0-)

    Now that public reporting is quick and easy, why do we still regulate campaign donations? Why not just let everybody give as much as they want to any candidate?

    If we do it, all candidates will be able to get a lot of money easily. Some will get more than others, but the Law of Diminishing Returns will lessen the impact of differences, since they'll all have a ton.

    Candidates with a lot of money will be in a better position to disagree with industries they dislike. If you go against the financial industry, it will be OK, because some sugar daddy in some other business will write you a check for millions of dollars. Candidates won't need to spend all of their time buttering up contributors because they'll have enough money.

    The only regulation we need is to make sure that donations get reported.

  •  Public financing has been on life support (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    since Buckley v Valeo.  I agree that Obama is not to blame, but nobody ever expected a Democrat to be in the position to forgo Federal Matching Funds.

    "Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come." Victor Hugo

    by lordcopper on Thu Jun 26, 2008 at 06:47:02 PM PDT

    •  Yeah (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      The Internet has changed everything in terms of running a progressive campaign.  It makes it easier to raise a hell of a lot of money via small contributions, and I think that has helped Obama quite a bit.

      Candidates are going to have to get used to this new reality.  All candidates.  I've only ever given to candidates via the net.  If I like a candidate, but they don't have a way for me to contribute online, they don't get money from me.  This has been a noticable problem with local level candidates, who do not always have online fundraising mechanisms.

      I suspect Obama has also been helped by the Republican Party's general mismanagement.  As bad as it's been for the country at large, it's doing wonderful things for the Democratic Party.

  •  Not my original idea but I like this... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    WayneNight all elected officials from soliciting or accepting contributions or gifts of any kind.  Provide public matching funds to any incumbent equal to any amounts raised by a challenger.  Challengers would be able to raise money from any domestic (as opposed to foreign) source with out limit.  The source of any contributions would have to fully revealed on the internet in near real time.  Any moneys spent by a party on behalf of a candidate would be reported like any other contributions and would be subject to matching with public funds.

    This would be a simple system which would relieve our politicians of the distracting and corrupting task of constantly having to raise re-election funds.  The money spent by publicly financing the re-elction campaigns of incumbants would be paid back many times over in better government.

    Republican't Leadership is a dangerous combination of cut-backs and incompetence.

    by casamurphy on Thu Jun 26, 2008 at 07:06:44 PM PDT

    •  It's an interesting idea... (0+ / 0-)

      ...but my main problem with it would be that it would stip me of my ability to support incumbents that I like with money.

      To a certain extent, I view contributions as part of the political process, something I do to support someone, the same as voting or going door to door.

      The other problem that I see here: What if you have a U.S. Congressman running against a U.S. Senator, or a U.S. Senator running against a president?

      Wouldn't both be barred from raising money under this scenario, meaning that there's no money for the "incumbent" to get in matching funds?

      •  Those other problems... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        If someone decided to run for an office other than the one they currently held, then they would be allowed to take contributions.

        Just as specified campaigning activities would be considered "in kind" contributions to a challenger, such activities in support of an incumbant, if not paid, would be considered an offset against the public financing amount the incumbant would be eligible to receive.

        Republican't Leadership is a dangerous combination of cut-backs and incompetence.

        by casamurphy on Thu Jun 26, 2008 at 10:12:08 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

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