The time for campaign finance reform?

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The conventional wisdom is that the public financing system for presidential campaigns is dead, or at least comatose. But a conference at the National Press Club last week — hosted by NYU School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice — posed an unconventional follow-up question: Is this the moment to push for new public financing legislation?

Conference speakers focused chiefly on two possible avenues for reform. The first is the Fair Elections Now Act, which would create a matching-funds system for U.S. House and Senate races by providing four dollars in public money for every dollar a candidate has raised in contributions of $100 or less. That system would ideally allow candidates to run for office without depending on large contributions or money from bundlers and lobbyists. The second avenue is one of several proposals to update the outmoded presidential public financing framework, which no longer — in the view of most political experts — provides enough money to compete. Barack Obama opted out in 2008 because he knew he was going to be able to raise so much more than the public financing system could provide.

The majority of speakers agreed that the time is right to pass both initiatives in 2009 or 2010. We’ll see. Freshman Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine and the former national president of the pro-reform Common Cause, opened the discussion by endorsing the reform efforts and noting that there is plenty of incentive to change the system.

“I guarantee you,” she told the hundreds of assembled activists and journalists, “nobody likes this” current system that requires members to spend hours each day raising money for their re-elections. She suggested that majority support for the Fair Elections Now bill would likely be present in the House, but cautioned that the battle would be tougher in the Senate. She also noted that Congress, which has certainly not been immune from the influence of big money in politics, would have “plenty of scandals to back this up.”

Reform proposals on both the congressional and presidential fronts would create a more generous public match rather than attempt to enforce pure spending limits. Michael Malbin of the Campaign Finance Institute defended this construct, noting, “It has become clear that there are limits to what you can accomplish through limits.”

One panel moderator, Peter Overby of National Public Radio’s Power, Money and Influence, expressed skepticism. “I’m not convinced that the time is right for public financing [of Congressional races],” he said.

But actor Sam Waterston ended the event sounding a forceful call-to-arms for activists to promote these types of reforms. “The Fair Elections [Now] system—or something very like it — is lawful, just, fair, and efficient.” And, now, he assured, was the time to enact it.

Veteran campaign finance reform activist Fred Wertheimer, currently president of Democracy 21, said the chances for reform largely depend on President Obama. During the campaign, Wertheimer noted, “Obama [said he was] firmly committed to reforming the public financing system as president. I’m assuming that the president is going to meet that commitment.”

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