Future White House campaigns could well be limited to frontrunners and rich people unless Congress acts quickly to change the 30-year-old system of financing presidential nominations, a bipartisan task force has concluded.
And to avoid that outcome, the Campaign Finance Institute Task Force on Financing Presidential Nominations unveiled its own recipe for reform: a 3-to-1 match for the first $100 of each individual’s contributions; $75 million spending limits; and raising the voluntary tax return check-off from $3 to $5 to replenish the public funds.
The plan would also provide an “escape hatch” for participating candidates, whereby the imposed spending limits would be lifted if an opponent decides to opt out of public funding.
No doubt, the proposal may be a hard sell on Capitol Hill, where many GOP lawmakers consider public funding systems to be “welfare for politicians.”
But Jeffrey Bell, a self-described “populist conservative” who sits on the CFI task force, told a handful of reporters that Republicans would be foolish to bypass this opportunity to reform the public financing system with someone like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) waiting in the wings.
“I think House Republicans will be making an enormous mistake if they leave in place a system favorable to Hillary Clinton,” said Bell, who during his 30 years in the political arena has worked on the campaigns of everyone from former Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to unsuccessful candidates such as Jack Kemp and Gary Bauer.
Although Clinton has been coy about her intentions for 2008, the former first lady has rock star appeal and could easily raise $100 million to $200 million for a presidential campaign.
Republicans, however, are eyeing a wide-open primary, and the average GOP Senator who tosses his hat into the ring would not have the sort of built-in financial base that President Bush has enjoyed.
Donald Foley, a prominent Democrat who sits on the CFI task force, said House Members should be equally interested in cleaning up the presidential funding mess, at the very least because it could aid their own political ambitions.
“Really, it’s easier to run for the presidency than it is to run for the U.S. Senate,” Foley said, noting that House lawmakers can’t even consider a statewide race unless they are able to put $5 million to $10 million on the table at the outset.
Foley also plugged in the inherent merits of CFI’s new proposal — that by providing incentives to candidates to raise money from low-dollar donors, those donors achieve influence, or at the very least a voice, in the political arena.
In the 2000 presidential campaign cycle, according to CFI’s analysis, two-thirds of individual contributions to Democrats Al Gore and Bill Bradley and Republican nominee Bush came from people who gave at least $1,000. Moreover, 95 percent of those donors had incomes of $100,000 or more, and 35 percent had family incomes of at least $500,000.
One motivation behind revamping the system, Foley explained, is to “get those people with incomes of $30,000 to $40,000” involved in the giving game.
CFI’s report and recommendations add yet another voice to the chorus calling for reform of the presidential funding system.
Last year, key Congressional sponsors of campaign finance reform efforts penned legislation to tackle the problem.
The bill offered by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) called for numerous changes, including a fourfold increase of the 1-to-1 match of public funding of the first $250 of an individual’s total contribution to a primary candidate, and an elimination of the state-by-state primary spending limits.
Their proposal would also have increased the overall primary spending limit from its current level of almost $50 million in 2004 to $75 million for candidates who “opt in” to public financing, and it would have increased the requirements to qualifying for public funding in a primary.
More recently, two members of the Federal Election Commission, Democrat Scott Thomas and Republican Michael Toner, offered their own proposal.
The bipartisan duo has suggested making significant increases in the primary spending limit for candidates who accept matching funds; doubling the maximum amount of matched donations from $250 to $500; and greatly increasing the total amount of matching funds that candidates can receive if they choose to take part in the public financing system.
The commissioners also recommended abolishing the state-by-state spending limits, making matching funds available to candidates earlier in the primary season and tightening the eligibility requirements for candidates to receive public funds.
The CFI task force put an estimated price tag on the various alternative proposals and concluded that “each is substantially more costly than” the institute’s own recommendation.
Based on what the various presidential candidates raised in the 2004 election cycle, CFI estimated that its plan would have cost the public $193.6 million. The McCain-Feingold alternative, meanwhile, would have cost $264.9 million, and the Toner-Thomas proposal would have cost $204.5 million.
During his abbreviated run for the Democratic presidential nomination, Howard Dean suggested a 5-to-1 match for the first $100 of each contribution and a $150 million spending limit. His plan, CFI estimated, would have cost taxpayers $223.2 million.
CFI argued that the additional $77 million in public funds needed to pay for the task force’s recommendations would be met by raising the check-off rate from $3 to $5. The other proposals, CFI suggested, would require an increase to at least $7.
Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer cautioned against simply using money as a measurement for reform.
“Cost is a factor, but I don’t think you start out with that, particularly since cost factors here are weighed against the integrity of protecting one democracy,” said Wertheimer, who called the McCain-Feingold-Shays-Meehan approach “excellent.”
Other CFI task force members include: Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell (R); Anthony Corrado, professor of government at Colby College; Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet at the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management; Rick Davis, managing partner of Davis Manafort and chairman of McCain’s political action committee Straight Talk America; Ruth Jones, vice provost for academic affairs at Arizona State University; CFI Executive Director Michael Malbin; former Democratic National Committee Chairman and ex-U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republican Charles Manatt; Ross Clayton Mulford, a partner at Jones Day who served as general counsel and campaign manager for presidential candidate Ross Perot in 1992 and general counsel to the Reform Party and Perot ’96; and PoliticsOnline President Phil Noble.
CORRECTION: The April 13 article “CFI Offers Plan for WH Campaign Funding” incorrectly reported the cost associated with the Campaign Finance Institute’s proposal for the presidential campaign finance system. CFI estimates the plan would cost $114.6 million.