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.