The Fair Elections Reform Act Is a Good Start.

The Washington Post's Dave Eggen reports on a renewed push by campaign-finance reformers to pass the Fair Elections Reform Act, which would expand public financing for congressional campaigns:

The Fair Elections Now Act, sponsored in the House by Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.) and Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) and in the Senate by Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), would establish a voluntary system in which candidates would agree to accept only donations of $100 or less from contributors in their districts or states. After meeting a minimum amount of qualified contributions, they would get $400 in matching funds for every $100 raised.

If there's anything I like about the Fair Elections Now Act, it's that the bill's authors wisely opted not to put limits on total spending; low spending limits encourage candidates to opt out or work around the system, negating its value. That said, the FENA caps matching public funds at $2.8 million, which could place candidates who opt in at a disadvantage if they face a wealthy, self-financed opponent. To borrow a page from the Campaign Finance Institute, it might make more sense to restrict matching funds to the first $100 of a donation and allow participating candidates to accept donations greater than $100 but lower than the legal limit. This would provide enough flexibility to keep a candidate within the system while keeping the focus on small donors.

My enthusiasm for the bill aside, there are a few missing elements. The FENA gives candidates an incentive to seek out small donors, but it doesn't give small donors an incentive to donate. The bill's supporters might want to consider including a tax rebate to encourage small donations (and further push candidates to rely on them). What's more, neither the House nor the Senate version of FENA addresses the problems with using public money to finance presidential campaigns. The major problem here is that the spending limit is far too low. Assuming it doesn't rise, we can expect future presidential candidates to follow the lead of Barack Obama and John McCain in opting out.

On the whole, though, there is a lot to like about the Fair Elections Now Act. The United States is a huge country, and given
the sheer diversity of interests as well as competing demands for attention,
it's not unreasonable to have large sums of money in politics. That corporations, labor unions, and issue-advocacy groups want to spend money isn't itself a terrible thing.
What's problematic is that there isn't much of a countervailing force
to balance out the influence of large donors. As far as campaign-finance
reform is concerned, enlarging the participatory pie is far more
important than keeping money out of elections, and the FENA is a huge step in bringing more people into the process.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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