Fred Wertheimer is president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan group supporting campaign finance reform.
John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause and the modern campaign finance reform movement in the early 1970s, wrote, "The citizen can bring our political and governmental institutions back to life, make them responsive and accountable, and keep them honest. No one else can."
In 1974, citizens spoke loud and clear about the need for fundamental anticorruption reforms in the wake of the Watergate scandals. The result was the current presidential public financing system, described by campaign finance scholar Anthony Corrado as "the most innovative change in federal campaign finance law in American history." It has served the nation and presidential candidates of both major parties well for most of its 37-year existence.
This landmark reform has safeguarded against corruption while providing candidates with the resources to wage competitive campaigns. The reform has promoted competition in elections, provided more meaningful choices to voters, and helped ensure that more candidates had the opportunity to share their views with the electorate.
GOP Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, leading an effort to repeal that system, has said, "The only people who benefit from taxpayer financing of campaigns are a handful of long-shot presidential candidates." This is simply not true. Every president since 1976, except Barack Obama, voluntarily used the system to finance their general election campaigns. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush each used the system twice. From 1976 through 1996, furthermore, all but four of the Republican and Democratic presidential primary candidates used the system to finance their primary races. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Obama.]
In recent years, the system has become outdated as the growing costs of presidential campaigns outstripped the public funds provided to participating candidates, but Congress has not updated the system. It needs to be repaired, not repealed, to again provide a viable alternative for presidential candidates to use in financing their campaigns.
A repaired system became all the more essential with the Supreme Court's disastrous Citizens United decision last year that unleashed the opportunity for massive corporate expenditures in presidential campaigns. This decision has left two funding options: a privately financed system dominated by influence-seeking corporate spenders and other special interests, big givers, and bundlers; or a revitalized publicly financed system funded by average citizens and small donors. [Read the U.S. News debate: Is Citizens United hurting Democracy?]
The public has recognized the importance and value of this presidential financing system. Opponents claim that low tax checkoff rates to fund the system show the public opposes public financing, but the checkoff is not a poll. If you want polling information, use a poll. For example, while that low tax checkoff rate occurred in 2008, a USA Today/Gallup poll found that more than 70 percent of the public supported continuing the system while only 20 percent said it should be eliminated.
Legislation has been introduced in Congress to fix the system to reflect the realities of conducting presidential campaigns and to build on the ability to raise small contributions on the Internet.
Congress and President Obama should reject any effort to kill or cripple the most important anticorruption campaign finance reform of our generation. Instead, Congress should modernize the public financing system so that it can continue to protect against corruption and serve the interests of the American people.
See the other side of the debate: Read GOP Rep. Tom Cole on why the tax checkoff system should be repealed.