Senator Mark Udall Tries to Breathe New Life into Public Financing System

Photograph by Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

Senator John McCain after speaking on day four of the Republican National Convention in Minnesota in this 2008 file photo.

While House Republicans try to kill public financing of presidential campaigns and both major-party candidates opt out, Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, has introduced legislation designed to resurrect the program that has existed since 1976.

Udall has introduced legislation in the Senate that would increase the amount of public money a presidential candidate could receive and eliminate the spending limits that now accompany matching funds. Democrats Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and David Price of North Carolina, and Republican Walter Jones of North Carolina, have sponsored a similar bill in the House. It comes during the first election since the Watergate scandal in which neither major party’s candidate will take any federal money for his campaign.

President Obama in 2008 became the first nominee to privately fund his entire campaign, raising a record $745 million, even as Republican nominee John McCain raised money privately for the primary and took the federal grant, then $84 million, for the general election.

The bill would have taxpayers provide a 4-to-1 match for individual contributions of up to $200 for the primaries and a similar match for the general election. They would have to agree to take federal funds for both the primary and general election. Candidates would also get a $50 million grant for the general election though they can continue to raise money. Donations would be limited to $1,000 per election rather than the current $2,500.

The candidates would get their primary money six months before the first caucus, rather than in January when the first votes are being cast, and the Friday before Labor Day for the general election rather than after their nominating conventions. And none of the money would go to the parties for their conventions. Taxpayers could divert $10 from their taxes to fund the new program, up from $3. And candidates must disclose all of their top fundraisers, a practice that everyone but Romney has followed since George W. Bush in 2000 became the first major-party nominee to shun federal funds for the primary.

House Republicans, meanwhile, have twice voted to eliminate the program altogether as a way to reduce the budget deficit. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has declined to take up the legislation in his chamber.

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