Public Campaign Funding Gains Steam to Counter Big Donors' Sway

September 16, 2021
In The News

Public financing of elections has been around for decades in the U.S. Today there are at least 27 programs in states, cities, and counties (most but not all of them Democratic), with models ranging from direct candidate grants to small-dollar matching. Advocates say public financing can stem corruption, empower a public that too often feels marginalized by special interests, and diversify public bodies from school boards to Congress. The idea has been gaining traction: New York City and San Francisco both moved to bolster their existing programs, and new programs in Baltimore and Portland, Ore., as well as the one in Washington, have gotten off the ground. But there are still questions about how much public financing can mobilize new donors at the local level. And it faces a test in Congress this fall as part of a voting rights package...HR 1, the comprehensive voting rights bill the House of Representatives passed in March, has a provision for voluntary 6-to-1 matching for small congressional campaign donations up to $200. To avoid political blowback from using taxpayer funds, it would be financed through a new fee on criminal and civil fines, fees, and settlements with banks and corporations. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the new fees would reduce the federal deficit by almost $1 billion over a decade. HR 1 would also authorize a voucher program to be piloted in three states, where voters would receive $25 to donate to congressional candidates. Democratic Representative John Sarbanes of Maryland, the lead sponsor of HR 1, says there’s “good momentum” for the public-financing provision. While key Senate swing voter Joe Manchin of West Virginia has expressed reservations about the size of HR 1, he co-sponsored a compromise bill that Senate Democrats introduced on Sept. 14 that included 6-to-1 small-donation matching. Even a trimmed-down package may not garner the 10 Republican votes it would need in the Senate. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has attacked the public-financing proposal specifically as “piles of federal dollars going to yard signs, balloons, and TV ads for candidates at least half of Americans disagree with.” Federal public financing may hinge on the fate of the filibuster. “I think whatever represents real reform, sadly, by definition, will be something that the current Republican leadership in the Senate will stand against,” Sarbanes says. “If that’s the reality we face,” he says, “then you have to look at resetting the rules. And I think that conversation is ongoing among Senate Dems.”