Giving public money to candidates to help pay for their campaigns in presidential elections - a post-Watergate reform intended to prevent official favoritism to wealthy groups and individuals - is, for all intents and purposes, in tatters.
In 2000, President Bush became the first candidate to win election after rejecting public financing in his bid for high office during the presidential primary season. He's not taking the taxpayers' money this time around, either. Last week, Democratic candidate Howard Dean became the first Democrat ever to decline public financing. John Kerry and Wesley Clark are reportedly considering the same move to compete effectively in the primaries.
Clearly, no major party candidate in 2008 will want to tap public funds unless reforms are made. Campaigns have become too expensive for candidates to remain competitive under the current public-financing limits. The law now requires a $45 million spending cap in a primary season. That's too low and should be raised based on either an inflation index or an index tied to the price of television ads.
When first introduced in 1974, the public-financing system served mostly to bolster Democrats' chances for election by requiring equal spending by the major-party candidates in a general election. (The Democrats controlled the Congress back then, but had difficulty raising money.) The system also worked fairly well, especially in allowing third-party candidates access to public monies, and the public to hear different views.
True, public financing hasn't stopped the dramatic influence of special-interest money. A new law to reform campaign financing, passed last year, is intended to do that - if the Supreme Court upholds it. And, of course, public funding hasn't kept the cost of campaigns down, or kept campaign spending from spiraling. But it has at least helped curb excessive and sometime illegal reliance on wealthy donors, labor unions, and corporations.
To increase the amount of public funding available, the government must educate voters about the purpose of the checkoff box on their tax forms. The portion doing so has dwindled to around 10 percent.
Much of the public still perceives most elected leaders as catering to donors' interests. The decision by Dean and Bush to opt out of public financing shows again that Congress must reform the system and find ways to better fund it.