Editorial: Obama’s decision hurts campaign finance reform

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

Last week, Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, did what many expected and opted out of the public financing system that has funded every major-party presidential nominee since Watergate.

The easy and legitimate criticism is that Obama flip-flopped after saying he would accept public financing. Once you get past the dime-a-dozen hypocrisy, and when the purpose of public financing is considered, it’s difficult to conjure up much outrage.

Obama has raised almost half of his contributions from those giving $200 or less, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And he has banned Washington lobbyists (but not those from Illinois) and political action committees from contributing.

Public financing and contribution limits were born out of a desire to ensure candidates were not beholden to big-money contributors. So far, Obama’s fundraising has been consistent with this goal.

The public financing system itself has not worked well for a number of reasons: Through its rulemaking, the Federal Election Commission opened numerous loopholes in campaign finance law. There also is no public financing for the House and Senate campaigns, ensuring an entire branch’s dependence on special interest money. And candidates already are skipping public funds in the primaries, canceling out the pristine nature of public money in the general election.

From Bill Clinton rewarding donors with a stay in the Lincoln Bedroom to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney outsourcing federal energy policy to contributors, cynicism about politicians and political donors is greater than ever.

The more important consequence of Obama’s decision will come if he is elected. Obama co-sponsored Senate Bill 936, which would set up a voluntary public financing system for U.S. House and Senate campaigns. While the public is cynical about a campaign finance system that amounts to bribery-lite, using tax dollars to finance campaigns is not popular either.

With $4-per-gallon gas, crumbling national infrastructure and an unsteady economy, taxpayers are going to be even less likely to want to pay for ubiquitous, annoying and untruthful 30-second campaign commercials.

But there are merits to public financing.

“The American people already pay for elections in ways that favor incumbents and special interests and in a congressional agenda spawned too many times by those who finance our campaigns,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., when he introduced Senate Bill 936 last year.

The average House candidate is not going to inspire legions of youths to make YouTube videos or to write a $25 check. They are the ones who must have the backbone to vote against lobbyists from whom they took $100,000 in bundled contributions on the rubber chicken dinner circuit. Most of the time, they don’t.

By skipping public financing, Obama hurts the chances of change on this issue. It’s unlikely Congress will vote with a President Obama in making the unpopular choice for public financing when Obama has forgone it himself and raised $200 million or $300 million to get elected.

State Journal-Register