Inquirer Editorial: Put limits on campaign cash

BARRIE MAGUIRE
BARRIE MAGUIRE
Posted: September 27, 2012

Congress failed to take up the unfettered money that has reached scandalous proportions in this election cycle before recessing to get on the campaign trail. But a bill has been introduced that could provide an alternative to politicians' dependency on the huge amounts of campaign cash that come with strings attached.

The Empowering Citizens Act would set up a voluntary system for House and Senate candidates to receive matching funds for elections. If candidates agree to accept half the legal limit for individual donations - taking $1,250 instead of $2,500 - they would receive federal matching funds at a five-to-one ratio for all donations under $250. A $100 donation would be matched with $500.

If a super PAC or "social welfare" group insinuates itself into an election, the candidates would be able to launch a counter-attack using funds from their national party that were raised from contributions limited to no more than $1,250 per donor.

Unlike other attempts to launch voluntary campaign limits, this one does not cap expenditures. That is a lamentable bow to the reality of modern campaigning, where more and more money is spent on television commercials that give voters less and less useful information.

The proposed federal act is modeled after New York's somewhat successful voluntary matching program, which is credited with giving the Big Apple a more diverse City Council.

But the program has not been so successful with mayoral candidates. Billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent millions to win his office, ignoring the city's progressive campaign finance system.

But big money doesn't always win. Gov. Christie took advantage of New Jersey's matching funds program in 2009 and beat wealthy, self-financing former Gov. Jon Corzine.

Using matching state funds, Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy won both the primary and general election against self-funding millionaires in 2010.

Giving citizens the ability to make small campaign contributions that really matter to candidates would give voters more power. With their modest contributions, citizens would actually direct the use of public campaign funds.

Candidates would have to pay more attention to constituents and their interests, instead of lobbyists who hold big-dollar fund-raisers in exchange for a little "quality time" with elected officials.

Congress recessed before requiring "social welfare" groups to disclose the sources of their funding, or making super PACs disclose their donors on a more regular basis. Already, such groups have spent five times as much as they did in 2008.

Voters need to know who's trying to persuade them.

The Empowering Citizens Act could change the game by putting control of the money flow in the people's hands. Too bad the bill won't help with the current election.

But maybe when Congress returns after Nov. 6, and contemplates the wreckage that lopsided spending has caused by electing special-interest patsies, it will pass campaign finance reform legislation in a lame duck session.

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