Barack Obama has only been President-elect for 36 hours, but seven major government reform groups are already making demands. In a joint press release Thursday morning, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, Public Citizen and US PIRG set out a “government integrity reform” agenda for the next Congress. And the groups are using Obama’s own words to convince him to adopt their plans, pointing out that Obama campaigned on a promise to “fix Washington.” Fixing Washington, they argue, means fixing campaign finance.
The reform groups are calling on Obama to repair the existing presidential public financing system and create a new public financing regimen for congress. But there’s one problem: Obama’s campaign is largely responsible for the presidential public financing system’s collapse. Obama, who initially promised to “pursue an agreement” to opt in to the public financing system, instead became the first candidate to turn down public financing for the general election. That decision allowed Obama to dramatically outraise and outspend John McCain, his Republican opponent. McCain was limited to $84 million in public financing during the general election campaign, while Obama raised over $150 million in September alone. The day after the election, McCain aides cited Obama’s spending advantage as one reason their man lost. But Obama did promise to fix the system. “I am firmly committed to reforming the system as president, so that it’s viable in today’s campaign climate,” he said this summer. The reformers are now pushing Obama to make good on that vow.
“Senator Obama in June and then his campaign again just a few days ago made publicly clear that he is committed to fixing the presidential public financing system,” says Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21. “We believe that Senator Obama will meet the commitment he made.”
The reformers want to close finance “loopholes” such as joint fundraising committees and “hybrid ads”, split with the national parties, that allow presidential candidates to circumvent contribution limits. They also want to strengthen the Federal Election Commission, and require candidates to disclose the names of “bundlers” who gather large numbers of donations.
Obama has supported campaign finance reform in the past. He was one of the cosponsors of a bill introduced late last year that would have matched small donations at four times their amount. Such a move would encourage candidates to focus on small donors over fat cats. The law also would have required presidential candidates to participate in the public financing system during the primary election for those candidates to be eligible for public general election funds.
Wertheimer says that reformers are not trying to undermine Obama’s success with small donors. “The underlying principle here is to build on the phenomenal success Obama had in raising small donations on the internet. We want to put the small donor in the drivers seat for these campaigns,” and “shift the whole focus to the small donor” and away from bundlers who can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in $2,300 donations.
“It’s my own view that the extraordinary potential for the internet is the most important long term development for campaign finance that has come out of this election,” Wertheimer continues. “Candidates can raise large sums from donations that are not influence seeking, with almost no cost. And it doesn’t take [candidates’] time [and] involves citizens in the election.” Wertheimer says that updated reform legislation based on the law Obama supported in 2007 will be introduced in the first days of the next Congress.
The reform groups are also calling on Obama to reinforce executive branch ethics rules, close loopholes in public corruption laws, and strengthen their enforcement.
Some Democrats, though, are going to be reluctant to do anything that might cut into the fundraising advantage their candidates had this cycle. Winning political parties often assume that they will always be able to raise more money than the other side. History suggests otherwise. And after all, a promise is a promise.