Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Whither Campaign Finance? The Fair Elections Now Act

It's funny that campaign finance came up here yesterday; the same day that a bipartisan group of senators and representatives announced a new piece of legislation to provide public financing of congressional elections.

For starters the system being proposed by Senators Durbin (IL-D) and Specter (PA-R) and Representatives Jones (NC-R), Larson (CT-D) and Pingree (ME-D) does not address presidential campaign finance at all. Yes, after Obama became the first presidential candidate to opt out of the federal matching funds system in the general election, that leaves a pretty big elephant (er, uh donkey?) in the room. Still this legislation is notable because it severely cuts back the cap on individual contributions for congressional candidates wanting to qualify for federal funding.

How does one qualify, you might ask?
In the House, for a candidate to receive access to $900,000, he or she must raise at least $50,000 dollars from 1500 contributors ($33/contributor) in amounts no greater than $100. 40% of that $900,000 can be spent in the primary campaign while the remainder is left for the general election.

In the Senate, things are slightly different because of the greater disparity in terms of numbers of constituents per senator. Senators can collect $1.25 million plus $250,000 for each of his or her state's congressional disticts by raising money (Again, in amounts no greater than $100.) from 2000 contributors and an additional 500 others from each congressional district. In this case, one-third of the federal money could be used in the primary campaign with the remainder left for the general election campaign.

Additional money can be raised in amounts up to $100 from home state residents and matched at a 4:1 rate by the government.

This is a novel idea (one that has been tried at the state level), but there are obviously some questions that would arise should this be attempted at the national level.

1. If the balance constitutionally is between free speech and potential undue influence of money, does a $100 limit contributions not overprotect against the latter at the expense of the former? This would be a major issue in any challenge to this legislation if it were to become law. But to even get to that point it will likely have to survive the journey through two chambers packed with incumbents that would be lukewarm to the idea on average.

2. The constitutional questions are answered to some extent by the voluntary nature of the system. If it were a requirement that all candidates for congress adhere to these rules, the shouts of opposition would be much louder. But honestly, who is opting into this system if it isn't required?

3. What happens to the money in the event that a candidate runs unopposed in either (or both) the primary or general election? Is that money automatically forfeited or can primary money be carried over to the general election? (This one comes with an assist from occasional commenter, Greg.)

4. Timing. The timing of this announcement isn't the best. But you can't wait on the economy to turn around when reform is at stake necessarily. Still, more taxpayer money to politicians isn't something very many people/voters want to hear about at the moment. There's a reason fewer and fewer people check that $3 box on their tax forms every year.

This will be an interesting test case to follow because the other shoe is really going to drop when and if this process or something similar is extended in some way, shape or form to the financing of presidential campaigns.

UPDATE: Politico has more on the newly dubbed Fair Elections Now Act.

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