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Supreme Court Ruling Gives Boost to Public Funding Movement

By / 1.27.2010

The recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC has put campaign finance reform back on the nation’s political agenda. Now more than ever, Americans are voicing concern over the corrupting influence of special interest money in politics and seeking long-term solutions that can tilt the balance of power in Washington back to the people. In recent days, we have seen new momentum for one such response: voluntary public funding of federal elections. It’s the ironic upside of a deeply disturbing ruling by the Court.

The Fair Elections Now Act for publicly funded elections (H.R.1826/S.752) was introduced in the House by Representatives by John Larson (D-CT) and Walter Jones (R-NC) and in the Senate by Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Arlen Specter (D-PA), gaining more than 130 co-sponsors to-date. These bills — championed by Americans for Campaign Reform and a broad, bipartisan coalition of business leaders, former members of Congress, and labor, environmental, religious, and civic organizations — would establish an innovative system of public funding of elections that rewards candidates that successfully attract small donors. These systems have been proven to work well in major cities like New York and Los Angeles and in eight states, from Arizona to Maine, where large majorities of candidates on both sides of the aisle have been elected with public funding.

As the New York Times wrote in an editorial on the heels of the Supreme Court ruling:

Congress and members of the public who care about fair elections and clean government need to mobilize right away, a cause President Obama has said he would join. Congress should repair the presidential public finance system and create another one for Congressional elections to help ordinary Americans contribute to campaigns.

Why is public funding of elections receiving so much attention in the wake of the Court’s decision? Quite simply, it’s the only meaningful reform that offers a long-term fix to the problem of special-interest money in our elections that also passes constitutional muster with this Supreme Court. Rather than restricting candidates and groups from spending money on political speech, it cherishes and expands free speech by ensuring that credible candidates without deep pockets will have the means to run competitive races. And because those who win elections using public funds have no special interest funders to pay back for their seat, they will be free to represent their conscience and constituents alone.

Empirical analysis of the effects of campaign spending on votes clearly shows that if we provide a candidate with sufficient public funds to get her message out and respond to attacks, excessive spending by opponents, their parties and special interest groups will have little determining effect on the outcome of the election. It’s a classic case of diminishing returns. And for a price of just $6 per citizen per year, a program to publicly fund all races in Washington is a bargain for taxpayers concerned with the billions in wasteful spending that goes to reward big donors.

In December, I wrote a policy memo making the case for the Fair Elections Now Act. The Supreme Court’s unfortunate decision has now pushed us into a new paradigm for campaign finance regulation, underscoring the need for new and innovative solutions. Real change in Washington cannot happen as long as corporations and other special interests dominate the debate on Capitol Hill and exercise undue influence over who runs for, and wins, public office. The Fair Elections Now Act offers our best chance at fixing our broken politics.