RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
There's a different kind of financial regulation that's up for debate these days: the regulation of political money. A Supreme Court decision in January said corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts in electoral politics. Democrats and liberal advocacy groups are pushing back. As NPR's Peter Overby reports, some want to push harder than others.
PETER OVERBY: Democrats see an opportunity here. They're just not sure what to do with it. The White House has criticized the court ruling since day one. President Obama lit into it in his State of the Union address. And when Chief Justice John Roberts called the criticism troubling, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs hit the same populist point again.
Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): The president fundamentally disagrees with that decision - as, I would say, do the vast majority of the American people.
OVERBY: Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin repeated the theme at an issue conference last week.
Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois; Senate Democratic Whip): This is a watershed in terms of the future of American political campaigns.
OVERBY: But if it is a political watershed, as Durbin said, here's another truth: As a matter of constitutional law, congressional Democrats can't put the big-money genie back in the bottle, mainly if 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, too: public financing.
Former Congressman Bob Edgar is president of the group Common Cause.
Mr. BOB EDGAR (President, Common Cause): We're trying to get citizen-owned elections. 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.
OVERBY: The heart of the bill is this: Congressional candidates who take only contributions of $100 or less could get matching funds in a four-to-one ratio.
Now, the U.S. has never had public financing for Congress, although it has for presidential candidates. Critics call it taxpayer-financed politics, or food stamps for politicians. But this bill would work differently.
At the Public Campaign Action Fund, David Donnelly says they polled on it in 19 swing congressional districts and found strong support. He says they're putting 10 regional organizers to work.
Mr. DAVID DONNELLY (Director, Public Campaign Action Fund): We're also organizing political donors to speak to the members of Congress that they support financially. We're also encouraging business leaders and former members of Congress to make their voices heard.
OVERBY: 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 at the libertarian Cato Institute says the bill fixes many problems of previous public financing proposals, but still...
Mr. JOHN SAMPLES (Cato Institute): 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.
OVERBY: And complicating things even more, lawmakers who vote for public financing would be giving up one of their main advantages over prospective challengers: that special pipeline to the campaign cash they now reap from lobbyists.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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