A Cure for a Political Disaster: Fixing the Presidential Public Financing System

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt,  makes a point as Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Cl
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, makes a point as Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton listens during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by MSNBC at the University of New Hampshire Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016, in Durham, N.H. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The current system of financing presidential elections is a political disaster. And the American people are paying the price.

According to Open Secrets, super PACs supporting presidential candidates have raised $416 million as of March 21. These funds were provided primarily by the Super Rich.

Altogether, super PACs have raised $607 million to support federal candidates in the 2016 election, with more than 40 percent of this total coming "from just 50 mega-donors and their relatives," according to The Washington Post. That amounts to $1.2 million per donor.

Welcome to the home of the oligarchs and the land of the billionaires.

The corrupt system we have today stems from the existence of dual financing systems for federal elections. It provides enormous advantages to the wealthy and the policies they support.

One system, created by Congress, includes disclosure of all money raised for campaigns and limits on contributions to candidates and parties. The second system, created by the Supreme Court, includes unlimited contributions spent by outside groups and dark money laundered through "social welfare" nonprofits.

The Supreme Court's system has allowed billionaires and millionaires to play an unprecedented and dangerous role in American politics. Individual-candidate super PACs are serving as vehicles for these mega-donors to make unlimited contributions to support a presidential candidate and circumvent the $2,700 candidate contribution limit. The contribution limit was enacted to prevent corruption.

Conservative Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner, seen by many as the most influential jurist outside the Supreme Court, captured the enormous damage done by the Court's financing system. Judge Posner stated, "Our political system is pervasively corrupt due to our Supreme Court taking away campaign-contribution restrictions on the basis of the First Amendment."

The unfolding presidential election illustrates the problems created for our political system.

The Republican primary is essentially a two person race. Billionaire Donald Trump is competing against Senator Ted Cruz who is heavily backed by billionaires. The Democratic primary is also a two person race. Hillary Clinton, supported by wealthy donors financing a pro-Clinton super PAC, is competing against Senator Bernie Sanders, the exception in the race who is repeating President Barack Obama's historic breakthrough in online small donor fundraising.

Waiting in the wings for the general election are super PACs and their mega-donors who will spend untold millions of dollars to support the major party nominees. The mega-donors who support the winner will be first in line to influence the new administration.

There was a time when we had a presidential campaign finance system that worked for the American people, not for the Super Rich.

Created in 1974, the presidential public financing system was used by almost all major party presidential candidates from 1976 through 1996. The system provided for competitive races while minimizing the role of big money in financing the presidential candidate campaigns.

Under the system, Republicans and Democrats each won the presidency three times; incumbents and challengers each won three times.

Washington Post
columnist E.J Dionne wrote in 2006, "The public financing of presidential campaigns, instituted in response to the Watergate scandals of the early 1970s, was that rare reform that accomplished exactly what it was supposed to achieve."

The presidential system eventually broke down, however, because Congress never allowed it to be updated and modernized. As a result, while the costs of running for president skyrocketed, the overall spending limit for participating candidates only increased by incremental cost of living adjustments.

Today, the presidential public financing system is defunct and needs to be repaired to again serve the interests of the American people.

The Empower Act, introduced by Senator Tom Udall (S.1176) and Representatives David Price and Chris Van Hollen (H.R. 2143), would create a revitalized, effective system.

Modeled on the successful New York City public financing system, the legislation would provide multiple public funds to match small contributions at a 6 to 1 ratio. Instead of participating candidates agreeing to spending limits that are impossible to calculate today because of unlimited outside money, candidates are required to abide by substantially lower contribution limits.

A repaired presidential public financing system would dramatically increase the amount of clean resources available to participating candidates and thereby greatly dilute the importance and impact of outside spending groups and their mega-donors.

A fixed system also would empower ordinary Americans in the political process by making their small contributions much more important and valuable to presidential candidates. And candidates would have an alternative way to finance their presidential campaigns without becoming obligated to big money funders.

The presidential election in 2016 is taking place in a corrupt campaign finance system. We need to ensure this does not happen again.