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A Mixed Reform Message?

Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean threw his support behind a Congressional proposal to abolish the Federal Election Commission on Wednesday as he rolled out a long list of other campaign finance and election reform initiatives, including public financing for House and Senate elections.

“I will work for passage of bipartisan legislation now before Congress to scrap the agency completely and create a new, independent three-member Federal Election Agency, with administrative law judges to enforce the law objectively,” Dean said during a campaign speech at the Cooper Union in New York City.

While other presidential candidates have offered their own suggested changes to the current election funding system — Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), for instance, said he would support a ban on contributions from federally registered lobbyists — Dean’s plan appears to be the most comprehensive proposal for reform issued by a White House candidate thus far in the 2004 race.

In terms of the FEC proposal, at least, the move puts Dean on the same page as another one-time insurgent presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). McCain, along with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Reps. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), introduced legislation earlier this year to dismantle the troubled watchdog agency.

But Dean vowed that until such legislation could be enacted, as president he would wrest the “FEC from the party machinery by appointing tough-minded, independent commissioners who will enforce the law in the public interest.” Under the current arrangement, three commissioners are recommended by House and Senate leaders from each party and are generally approved by the White House.

At the same time, the former Vermont governor also endorsed a plan to “take back the public airwaves” by creating a system of low-dollar contributions that will be matched with advertising vouchers, a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for small contributions of up to $100, and widespread reform of the presidential public finance system, as well as public financing for Congressional candidates.

“The same scramble for big money that plagues presidential elections corrupts Congressional campaigns too,” Dean said. “Therefore the same principles that govern public financing of presidential elections … should apply to U.S. Senate and House elections too,” Dean said.

The reform community welcomed Dean’s support for ideas they have long held dear.

“He’s basically incorporated the reform agenda” into his campaign, remarked Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer, a leading reform advocate and one of the engineers of a pledge that Dean and six other presidential candidates signed this week vowing to make the reform of the presidential public financing system a priority if elected.

Wertheimer noted, however, that he and others are trying to garner the support of all presidential candidates, including George W. Bush. He noted that Bush, after all, was the one who signed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 into law.

Wertheimer said that getting the presidential candidates to go on record about reforming the presidential funding system is just part of a broad-based national effort, and Members of Congress can expect to be asked to weigh in also.

“Our goal is to get all the candidates to lay out and support the reform agenda,” Wertheimer said. “The presidential candidates was step one. This is now going to extend to asking Members of Congress and Congressional candidates to support fixing [the system].”

Meredith McGehee, spokeswoman for the Alliance for Better Campaigns, which is championing a reduced airtime rate for candidates, also was encouraged by Dean’s announcements.

“I am always pleased when any candidate, politician or person recognizes the role that television is playing in campaigns,” McGehee said, while acknowledging that Dean will “obviously help bring attention to the issue.”

“The fact that he’s the frontrunner and has endorsed the concepts of the ‘Our Democracy, Our Airwaves Act,’ is helpful,” McGehee said.

The reform community has long envisioned public financing — in the form of vouchers or through other means — as the logical next step for reform, especially following the enactment of BCRA, which banned soft money and cracked down on issue advocacy, but is facing scrutiny by the Supreme Court.

But at the same time, Dean was drawing criticism from other circles about the possibility that he might opt out of the public financing scheme.

This week, Dean asked his 600,000 supporters to decide whether he should accept federal matching funds and abide by spending caps or opt out of the public financing system altogether to try to match President Bush’s fundraising prowess — a move that some believe doesn’t square with the pledge he just signed.

Public Citizen’s Joan Claybrook issued a statement Wednesday declaring that Dean should stick to the spending limits, but she seemed to place more of the blame on President Bush than on Dean, if he chooses to askew the $45 million spending caps placed on those who participate in the public funding process.

“While we wish that all the presidential candidates would stay within the public financing system and run for president on a level playing field, Bush’s excessive campaign spending — which could amount to four times the spending ceiling for any candidate who stays within the public financing system — places an extreme handicap on all other candidates who want to participate in a fair fight,” Claybrook said in the statement.

Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) indirectly criticized Dean for considering the possibility of opting out of the public financing system.

“If any of us decide to play outside the public financing system this year, it will directly contradict our ability to legitimately advocate for additional reforms of this system in the future. In order to truly level the playing field, every single presidential candidate should pledge to stay within the public financing system this year,” Gephardt said in a statement released on his campaign Web site this week.

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