With the economy still in crisis and Congress bracing for major policy fights over health care and energy regulation, it's hard to see how an obscure issue like public financing for political campaigns could win much traction.
But a growing chorus of campaign finance reform advocates insist that this is their moment. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are poised to introduce bills to publicly fund not only presidential elections, but House and Senate races as well. A coalition of good-government groups as well as some unlikely players, including lobbyists and business leaders, are preparing an aggressive campaign to force public financing to the front burner.
Common Cause has been meeting with lobbyists on K Street, including powerhouse Cassidy & Associates.
Several factors are fueling the push for public financing, reform advocates say. The economic downturn, recent disputes and scandals involving earmarks, and a crowded policy agenda that's stoking business on K Street have shone a spotlight on lobbyists and their campaign donations, government watchdogs maintain.
Most importantly, President Obama not only backs public financing but has pioneered a new model for underwriting political campaigns through small internet donations. Obama raised plenty of large donations, but he could not have collected a record $750 million without his army of small donors. And while Obama rejected Treasury money on the campaign trail, he's repeatedly promised to fix the presidential public financing system.
The small donor model is at the heart of the Fair Elections Now Act, a congressional public financing bill to be introduced later this month by Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa. A companion bill in the House will be put forward by Reps. John Larson, D-Conn., and Walter Jones, R-N.C. The legislation would combine private funding from small donors with public matching grants up to a fixed amount. A similar formula to reward small donors is the centerpiece of a bill to be introduced by Sens. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, to repair the presidential public financing system.
"It's a new generation of reform," said Arn Pearson, vice president of programs for Common Cause. "We took a hard look at the lessons from the last election and came up with this hybrid model." Reform advocates will push the presidential and congressional public financing bills concurrently, but expect Feingold's legislation to overhaul the presidential system to come up first.
Common Cause has been meeting with lobbyists on K Street, including Martin A. Russo, chief executive officer and senior vice chairman of the lobbying powerhouse Cassidy & Associates, to round up support. The idea is to show lawmakers that lobbyists are tired of the constant fundraising and that they take reform proposals seriously, said Pearson. Joining established watchdog groups such as Common Cause, Democracy 21 and Public Citizen are some new players that include prominent conservative and business leaders.
"What we see as a result of our private financing system is that it undercuts competition," said Dan Weeks, president of Americans for Campaign Reform, a group based in Concord, N.H., that has set out to round up GOP and business backing for public financing. The bipartisan group's co-chairs include four former senators: Democrats Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, and Republicans Warren Rudman of New Hampshire and Alan Simpson of Wyoming.
Corporate leaders who've signed on to the congressional public financing bill include Charlie Couric, founder and president of Brita Products; Alan G. Hassenfeld, chairman of Hasbro Inc.; and Jim Sinagal, co-founder and CEO of Costco. Public financing resonates both with budget hawks and with conservatives who oppose earmarks, said Weeks. Contractors who get special consideration thanks to their contributions waste taxpayer dollars, he noted. And proposed earmarks reforms, while positive, don't fix the underlying problem.
The economic meltdown also has focused public attention on how corporate campaign donations contributed to lax oversight on Capitol Hill, said Weeks. He pointed to a recent poll by Lake Research Partners and the Tarrance Group which found that 73 percent of voters believe that political donations to lawmakers were "a major factor in causing the current financial crisis on Wall Street." That same poll showed that 67 percent of voters back public financing.
Also ginning up pressure on Capitol Hill is a grassroots group spearheaded by internet gurus Lawrence Lessig and Joe Trippi. The co-founders of the Change Congress project, they've launched a "donor strike" that recently reached $1 million in withheld donations. The "strikers" agree to give zero campaign donations to any lawmaker who refuses to overhaul the political money system.
Of course, public financing will be no easy sell in Congress. Incumbents remain disinclined to embrace changes that would favor challengers. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., remains an influential foe of what he calls taxpayer-funded elections. And the details of a small-donor funded system, which worked for Obama but won't necessarily transfer to other candidates, remain controversial. Still, reform advocates are poised to renew the campaign finance wars -- and say they have some new arrows in their quiver.