Fix federal aid for presidential races

The 2008 presidential race is shaping up to be the greenest in history. And we're not talking tree- hugging. Hillary Clinton has waved off federal funds for the general election, with others likely to follow. Is this the end for the public campaign-finance system?

Congress needs to change the law that was designed in the 1970s to keep presidential elections from being partly decided by how much money is spent. Otherwise, presidents will be even more beholden to donors in their official decisions.

Last weekend, Senator Clinton announced her candidacy and also let the world know she would pay for her primary campaigns and, if nominated, the general-election race without federal help. She reportedly has some $14 million already in her campaign war chest. By some estimates, when both the Republican and Democratic candidates enter the polling booth on Nov. 4, 2008, each will have spent roughly $500 million on the primary and general elections.

Several forces are at work to undermine the law. Among them: the rising cost of campaigns, particularly television advertising; the fund- raising potential of the Internet; and the ever-shifting primary-election calendar. In 2008, Democrats will hold a primary and three caucuses during a 15-day period in January. Competition will be intense to come out of those events with "the Big Mo."

The federal law hasn't kept pace with these changes. Matching money for each election cycle rises with the cost of living. But that doesn't keep up with the unique costs of campaigning.

For the coming cycle, candidates would have to agree to cap spending at $45 million during the primaries to qualify for matching funds. They'd have to hold general-election spending to $75 million. Why settle for $45 million when you need $100 million to really compete?

The first federal handout to primary candidates who qualify for matching funds will arrive from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) Jan. 1, 2008 – too late for campaigns with lesser-known candidates or candidates slow to enter the race.

It would be too easy to chuck it all and let elections devolve into a contest for money. After all, only about 10 percent of Americans check "yes" on their income-tax forms to support public election financing – even though it neither adds to one's tax bill nor decreases one's refund. [ Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated the percentage of Americans who support public election financing via their income-tax forms.]

A bill introduced last year and slated to be reintroduced in the new Congress would release primary-campaign funds six months earlier, significantly boost spending caps ($150 million for the primaries and $100 million for the general election), and raise the rate at which private donations get matched. And if one candidate opts out of the system and runs against a candidate who agrees to federal spending caps, the FEC would pump extra money into the participant's coffers to close the spending gap, if his or her opponent spends more than 120 percent of the FEC's limits.

It's too late to bring these changes to bear on the 2008 race. But the goal of reducing the influence of "big money" remains an important one. When the bill is reintroduced, Congress should continue to express its reform-minded mood by passing it.

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