A Way Forward: Rebuilding the Presidential Public Financing System

American flag and 100 dollar bill

Earlier this week, Senator Mark Udall of Colorado introduced a bill to fix and modernize the Presidential Public Financing System. While clearly its short-term prospects for passage in the Senate are dim, this is a serious and timely effort that deserves support.  Here's why.

At the heart of Udall's bill is a set of incentives for presidential candidates to focus on soliciting small-donor contributions from a broad base.  With spending limits removed, such a system will attract candidates to participate, and the money will flow to candidates earlier.  The system will also be more solvent, with better funding mechanisms and more stringent viability requirements for applicants. And the reforms in Senator Udall’s bill, by strengthening the incentives to solicit small contributions, will help to ensure that the system will continue to provide an alternative to the current practice of constantly dialing large-money donors.

It is no secret that the current presidential public financing system is no longer working.  This is largely because opponents, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have blocked efforts to ensure the system stayed up-to-date over the last 30 years.  Then, a spate of decisions by the Roberts-led Supreme Court further damaged the system.  Since the Citizens United decision, the rise of Super PACs and "shadow Super PACs" (501(c)4 and (c)6 organizations) has made the re-tooling of the presidential public financing system even more urgent.  Wealthy donors and corporations are now spending without limits to influence our elections and are playing a grossly disproportionate role in picking the winners and losers on Election Day.

Without limiting anyone’s speech, this new proposal offers candidates a way out, allowing them the chance to focus on investments from the general public to win their campaign.  So even though this measure will not likely move in this Congress, its introduction is an important step forward in laying out what a post- Citizens Unitedpublic financing system could look like.  Sen. Udall deserves great credit for getting the ball rolling.  We look forward to his continued leadership in the fight to restore this once vibrant program that served our democracy so well for decades.