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House Committee Debates Public Financing Option for Campaigns

Members debated the benefits and drawbacks of a national public financing option for Congressional campaigns on Thursday, with Republicans rejecting the idea and Democrats largely embracing it.

A two-hour hearing of the House Administration Committee focused on The Fair Elections Now Act, a bill backed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers that would allow qualifying candidates to receive millions of dollars in grants from the federal government.

Supporters of the bill say that such a system would boost public confidence and diminish the influence of lobbyists on Capitol Hill. They point to states such as Maine and Connecticut, where most candidates in state races have opted for similar public financing programs.

Opponents, however, said that a national campaign finance program could have unintended consequences. They argue that special interest groups will find ways to reroute their money to less-regulated entities such as 527s if they are denied the ability to donate directly to candidates.

Rep. Artur Davis (Ala.), the only Democrat on the committee to speak against the bill, also worried that more “frivolous candidates— would run for office on the government’s dime.

“The reason we don’t get more frivolous candidates is, candidly, because they can’t raise the money,— he said. “Most frivolous candidates for Congress wouldn’t want to be here… They want to get their name out.—

The House bill has 73 co-sponsors, 71 of them Democrats. But it hasn’t moved far. The House Administration Committee has not yet scheduled a markup, and some Members are apprehensive about the price tag, which is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), has four sponsors and no hearing has been set.

But Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) argued Thursday that the current campaigning system is “corrosive— and must be reformed to rebuild the public’s confidence.

“It has us spending an inordinate amount of time with our hand out,— said Larson, who sponsored the House bill.

His legislation would offer candidates a public financing option that matches government funds to private donations.

To qualify, a candidate would have to raise $50,000 from 1,500 individuals. Once accepted, the candidate could continue to accept donations no larger than $100; those private funds would be matched 4-to-1 by the government. Other public funds would be released depending on how much the candidate’s opponent raises.

Under the system, the most a candidate could raise — public and private combined — would be about $3.3 million.

Republicans argued that taxpayers would end up paying for that, and thus would be involuntarily funding candidates they might not support.

The solution, said ranking member Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), is a system where campaigns are forced to reveal the donor of every contribution before spending it. There should be no individual contribution limit, he added.

“The election process is an opportunity for individuals to exercise their freedom of expression,— he said. “The last thing I want us to do is have the government tell us what we can say and can’t say.—

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