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Obama defends campaign financing

President opted out in his ‘08 run

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Though he opted out of the public financing system in 2008 to run the most expensive presidential campaign in history, President Obama on Tuesday said he opposes House Republicans' effort to do away with the taxpayer-financed system altogether.

Mr. Obama became the first candidate ever to opt completely out of both primary and general election public financing, and is largely credited with putting the final coffin nail in the system. But Mr. Obama said Tuesday he wants to see the system fixed, rather than follow Republicans who want to abolish the system altogether.

The effect of ending the current system "would be to expand the power of corporations and special interests in the nation's elections; to force many candidates into an endless cycle of fundraising at the expense of engagement with voters on the issues; and to place a premium on access to large donor or special interest support, narrowing the field of otherwise worthy candidates," the White House said in a statement of policy.

The public system is funded by taxpayers who voluntarily check off the box on their income tax forms that sends $3 of their tax bill to the Federal Election Commission.

But fewer Americans are checking that box — just 7.3 percent volunteered their money in 2010, down from a high of 28.7 percent in 1980 — leaving the system short on money.

Hans von Spakovsky, a former FEC commissioner who is now a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said if Mr. Obama had taken public campaign financing in 2008 there might not have been enough to go around.

"I'm a former FEC commissioner. I've never contributed to it because I don't like the idea — and I think this is the problem most members of the public have — of my tax money going to candidates whose views I disagree with," Mr. von Spakovsky said.

He said one of the "dirty little secrets" of the public-financing system is that fringe candidates such as Lyndon LaRouche have collected millions of dollars of taxpayer money by qualifying for matching funds.

Mr. Obama offered no specifics on how he would repair the current system, and Mr. von Spakovsky said with fewer taxpayers volunteering to turn over their money, there is no way to repair it short of making contributions mandatory — which would raise constitutional questions.

"I think it's a basic violation of your First Amendment rights, your associational rights, for the government to tax you and then give it to political candidates whose ideas you disagree with," he said.

The public campaign finance system, established after the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, offers to match money candidates raise during their party primaries, and then offers a lump sum of taxpayer money to those candidates who choose to play by its rules and spending limits during the general election. It also offers some money for Republicans' and Democrats' nominating conventions.

Backers of the original bill sought to limit the influence of money in politics and the time candidates must spend fundraising. But their efforts have repeatedly been thwarted by loopholes or by candidates who shunned the system altogether.

In 2008, Mr. Obama opted out of the system for both the primaries and the general election, and instead raised nearly $750 million on his way to defeating Republican nominee Sen. John McCain. Mr. McCain had opted out of the primary funding, but accepted taxpayer funding for the general election - and was heavily outspent.

Mr. Obama, who has proved adept at fundraising both for himself and for his party's congressional candidates, said he worries about the corrupting influence of such money.

House Republicans have portrayed their bill to eliminate the system as part of their pledge to hold a vote every week cutting spending.

Rep. Tom Cole, the Oklahoma Republican who is sponsoring the bill, called the current system "the very definition of frivolous spending" and said ending it would save $520 million over 10 years.

"President Obama himself raised a record $745 million without accepting a dime of federal assistance, and I don't believe he would say that makes his administration beholden to special interests or that his administration is hopelessly corrupt as a result of forgoing public financing," Mr. Cole said.

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