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Watchdogs Wound Up for Public Financing Fight

With Election Day approaching, Washington, D.C., insiders have begun focusing on their legislative goals for next Congress, and government watchdog groups are no different.

Emboldened by their success last year in passing the largest ethics overhaul in decades, these groups have set their sights on what might be an even bigger legislative lift: reworking the presidential public finance system and implementing one at the Congressional level.

While ethics reform advocates are still finalizing their agenda for the 111th Congress, representatives from Democracy 21, Public Citizen, Common Cause and Campaign Legal Center say their coalition of watchdog groups has started strategizing about how to corral lawmakers on the subject.

“The campaign finance issue is the biggest remaining issue that wasn’t addressed in the last Congress because we were all focused on lobbying and ethics reform,” said Fred Wertheimer, head of Democracy 21. “Campaign finance reform is the 800-pound gorilla here.”

Watchdogs say Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama’s (Ill.) decision to forgo the public financing has demonstrated the need for fast action to rework the presidential system.

“There is urgency there, given what’s happened in this election,” said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center. “I think the feeling is that this election is making a good case for why the system has to be fixed.”

Implemented in 1974 after the Watergate-era scandals, public financing in presidential campaigns allows candidates that agree to limit their campaign spending to qualify for $85 million from the Treasury Department. After smashing fundraising records, Obama became the first presidential candidate to opt out of public financing.

“It’s broken not because it’s inherently flawed,” McGehee said. “It’s because the system is more than 30 years old.”

How exactly reformers would like to change the system is still under discussion, Wertheimer said.

Still, several advocates said the key would be to raise the amount of money available to candidates.

In addition to dealing with the presidential public financing system, reform advocates say they will push for lawmakers to implement a similar measure at the Congressional level, an idea that has had little traction in the past.

“The whole way we finance campaigns is really perpetuating a conflict of interest,” said Sarah Dufendach, vice president for legislative affairs at Common Cause.

“We’re not going to get climate change or global warming legislation, health care, education and energy reform as long as the pharmaceuticals, oil companies and the energy industry are the ones paying for Congresses’ ear,” she said.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) introduced legislation this year that would create public financing for Congressional candidates. It would require publicly funded candidates to forsake raising private money, other than a small amount of seed money and qualifying contributions. In exchange, candidates would receive $750,000 in general election funding and $150,000 for each Congressional district in their state, minus one. Publicly funded candidates would also receive one media voucher worth $100,000 for every Congressional district in their state.

Incumbents, of course, benefit strongly from the current system, and that might explain why legislative efforts to change it have failed. The business community has also been skeptical of public financing, arguing it is a matter of clamping down on free speech.

The financial crisis might also work against reformers as the public might already feel the burden of paying for the Wall Street bailout and might not want to add the cost of underwriting candidates.

Advocates say they are confident that a McCain or Obama administration would likely allow for movement on the issue. One of Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) signature accomplishments is the McCain-Feingold law that overhauled campaign financing.

While Obama abstained from public financing for his presidential campaign, he has had a track record of backing public financing.

There also have been advances at the state level in Maine, Arizona and Connecticut to use public financing of campaigns for local officials.

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