Liberal Groups Seek Public Financing Of Elections

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Democrats and liberal advocacy groups are pushing back against a January Supreme Court decision that said corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts in electoral politics, but some want to push further than others.

Democrats see an opportunity here, but they are just not sure what to do with it.

The White House has criticized the court ruling. President Obama lit into it in his State of the Union address. When Chief Justice John Roberts called the criticism "troubling," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs hit the same populist point again.

"The president fundamentally disagrees with that decision — as, I would say, do the vast majority of the American people," Gibbs said.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin hit the theme again at a conference last week.

"This is a watershed in terms of the future of American political campaigns," Durbin said.

But if it is a political watershed, here's another truth: As a matter of constitutional law, congressional Democrats can't put the big-money genie back in the bottle. Mainly, they're working on a bill for more disclosure of corporate and union spending.

But Durbin and some other liberals want a more aggressive response: public financing.

"We're trying to get citizen-owned elections," said former Democratic Rep. Bob Edgar, president of the group Common Cause. "After all the reforms take place, we'll still need lobbyists. But the lobbyists will have to come with their talking points, not necessarily coming with bundles of money."

The heart of the bill is this: Congressional candidates who take only contributions of $100 or less could get matching funds in a 4-to-1 ratio.

The U.S. has never had public financing for Congress, though it has for presidential candidates.

Critics call it taxpayer-financed politics, or "food stamps for politicians," but this bill would work differently.

David Donnelly, national campaigns director at the Public Campaign Action Fund, said the group polled 19 swing congressional districts and found strong support for the plan. He says 10 regional organizers are being put to work.

"We're also organizing political donors, to speak to the members of Congress that they support financially," Donnelly said. "We're also encouraging business leaders and former members of Congress to make their voices heard."

The strategy would be to push the bill first in the House, where it has 141 cosponsors, and then build pressure on the Senate.

Scholar John Samples, who directs the libertarian Cato Institute's Center for Representative Government, said the bill fixes many problems of previous public financing proposals, but there is still the matter of perception.

"Essentially we have an enduring post-Watergate public attitude which says that I don't trust the way things are, but I don't trust the government to make them better," Samples said.

Complicating things more is the fact that lawmakers who vote for public financing would be giving up one of their main advantages over prospective challengers — their special pipeline to the campaign cash they now reap from lobbyists.



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