When election season rolls around, regardless of whether it is on a local, state, or federal level, there is always commentary regarding voter turnout. The reasons, metrics, and science on this may differ depending on who is asked but one of the uniting threads is the relevancy of the voter. Voters by and large feel that their votes do not really count and for that matter, factor into the selection of who is going to represent them when pitted against corporations, wealthy donors, and their vast arsenal of resources, influence, and capital. There are numerous ways to improve the American political system to be more inclusive of the citizenry as a whole. Reforming and adhering to the existing campaign finance rules specifically the public funding versus the private funding debate on the federal level is a great location to start.
According to acclaimed political scientist and noted pioneer Harold Lasswell, politics is defined as the process of who gets what, where, and how. With that framework, one can see the importance and necessity of why “big money” would jump into the fray to not only preserve its interests but also exerting influence on those who can broker deals regarding who gets what, where, and how. As far back as the early 1900s, sitting Presidents, lawmakers, and other federal and state officials have voiced the need for campaign finance reform. Beginning with the Tillman Act of 1907 and followed by the Federal Corrupt Practices Act (1910, 1925), the Hatch Act, the Smith-Connally Act (1943), and the Taft-Hartley Act (1947) are a few examples. These early actions aimed to curb the influence of wealthy people, corporations, and special interests groups on the outcome of elections on the federal level through regulation of spending in federal level campaigns and mandating disclosure of campaign finances to the public. The current campaign finance enforcement framework came about from the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. This act built upon the policies of its predecessors and was touted as being more stringent in its reporting requirements. It was amended in 1974 which helped to create the Federal Election Commission (FEC), a central and more importantly, an independent administrative authority to oversee the implementation of those policies.
In layman’s terms, public financing is the system under which candidates can use U.S. Treasury dollars to fund their campaigns, primaries and/or general elections. Agreement to use the funding comes with several stipulations as referenced here, Public Funding of Presidential Elections. There is a maximum spending limit set by the FEC which varies from year to year; the limit in 2012 was $91.2 million for the general election and $45.6 for the overall primary. The other option is to refuse public funding and rely on funding from private donors, supporters, etc. This process is still regulated in part by the reporting requirements to the FEC of donor contributions and disclosures but there is no limit as to how much a candidate can raise for a campaign. This issue came to the forefront in the 2008 presidential general election race between then Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain. In 2007, Senator Obama, Senator McCain, and other candidates called for all participants to disavow private funding in favor of public funding. Curiously enough, by the time that each party had selected their nominee for President, Senator Obama rejected public funding by stating that it was a broken system. But what makes the system broken? The most obvious and glaring aspect that makes it less favorable in comparison to using private funding is the relatively low monetary limit versus private funding. The public financing limit for the 2008 election was $84.1 million per candidate. The total raised by all candidates in 2008 general election exceeded 1 billion dollars! Senator Obama raised $745 million dollars of which he spent $730 million dollars, Senator McCain raised $368 million dollars and spent $333 million dollars, Ralph Nader raised and spent 4 million dollars, Bob Barr raised and spent 1 million dollars, and the rest of the field did not exceed $500, 000 raised. In the 2012 general election, the issue of public financing versus private financing was once again at the forefront. This time, there was little controversy with both President Obama and Mitt Romney opting to raise funding through private means. President Obama raised $716 million dollars and Mitt Romney raised $446 million dollars. When factored in along with the added spending of each party association and outside groups, the Democrats spent 1.1 billion dollars on the election and the Republicans spent 1.2 billion dollars. With these numbers, it is fairly easy to see why the public financing option has not been utilized. Simply put, winning elections (under the current structure) requires money and TONS of it. $84.1 million is a mere drop in the bucket compared to what each candidate was able to accomplish individually.
So where does this leave the public finance option? Congress has been reluctant to bring about comprehensive change on this matter so the status quo prevails. One way to help remedy this issue is to increase the public financing limit to be competitive with private fundraising. This idea is shunned in many circles since it is tacit acknowledgement that big money influences elections. Another avenue would be to eliminate private funding altogether or cap it at a certain figure. This too has met with opposition in the past from..you guessed it, Big Money. Legal challenges to the authority of the FEC in cases such as Bunkley v. Valeo, Citizens United v. FEC, and McCutcheon v. FEC have helped to further erode the ability and reach of the FEC in reigning in campaign finance. The way it stands currently, public financing only appeals to candidates who have trouble raising the necessary funding to compete. As the money raised has continued to soar and it is trending in that direction again for 2016, the tenets and principles of the campaign finance reform are damaged that much more. The system that was established to keep big money out of directing, influencing,and shaping federal campaigns is failing and one can argue if it has ever succeeded.. With each stroke of the pen in the checkbook, wealthy donors, corporations and institutions are shaping policy, influencing election leaps and bounds. As voters prepare for each election cycle and (hopefully) conduct the necessary research on the platform and principles of their candidate(s) of choice, it would behoove them to also be cognizant of how their candidate(s) campaign is funded and how those coffers are filled. More often than not, it is about who gets what, where, and how.
photo credit: Thomas Hawk