Dem Congressmen Unveil Bill to ‘Level the Playing Field’ on Campaign Finances

By Gabriella Hoffman | June 26, 2012 | 7:30 PM EDT

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) (AP photo)

( – Three Democratic members of Congress have unveiled a plan to respond to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which opened up the law on campaign finances.

Reps. David Price (D-N.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) joined Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) in launching the Presidential Funding Act, a bill that seeks to eliminate spending caps on candidates who opt into the public funding system in both primary and general elections.

According to Udall, the bill would improve the system and restore integrity to elections.

“The public financing system has worked for 40 years, and I believe it’s enriched the political discourse in the country by ensuring that the American people have a voice in elections, not just connected insiders, special interests or wealthy donors,” he said last week at a news conference.

“However, in the post-Citizens United era, the public financing system is no longer a realistic option for presidential contenders,” Udall added.

Candidates would be required to raise a minimum of $25,000 in 20 states and accept a maximum contribution of $1,000 per donor to be eligible under the system.

The check-off option on income tax forms would rise from $3 to $10 per individual and from $6 to $20 for a married couple. The bill would also end public financing of presidential nominating conventions and replace it with a privately-funded account.

This legislation is similar to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002, known as the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which prohibited nonprofit organizations and unions from using funds to make independent expenditures through “electioneering communication,” or promoting the election or defeat of a candidate.

Additionally, McCain-Feingold barred these groups from airing ads within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a general election. It also banned “soft money” contributions, which involves money not tied to particular candidates, and resulted in the creation of 527 groups, which have no upper-level contribution limits and no restrictions placed on those who contribute.

Udall said he introduced the bill with the intent of “leveling the campaign-finance playing field,” something that he said was made necessary by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, which lifted restrictions on political speech.

In 2010, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down parts of McCain-Feingold in Citizens United v. FEC.

Citizens United, a conservative group, released “Hillary: The Movie” in anticipation of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 presidential run, but the Federal Election Commission barred the group from advertising the movie during primary season.

In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court said parts of McCain-Feingold unconstitutionally infringed upon the First Amendment rights of corporations and unions since political spending was ruled to be protected speech.

The Democratic congressmen say they are confident that the Presidential Funding Act will encourage small donations in presidential fundraising and diminish the role of special-interest money.

Price, a lead sponsor of the House bill, said that the bill would deliver transparency and accountability to the American electoral system.

“The system has worked remarkably well. It’s been used in every general election by every Republican and Democratic presidential nominee from 1976 through 2004 and by Senator McCain in 2008,” Price said.

He added: “It’s clear with recent Supreme Court rulings and the emergence of SuperPACs, many Americans are questioning the transparency -- even the legitimacy -- of our elections.”

In 1966, Congress voted for the first public finance provision but suspended it immediately. It was later consolidated by the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) of 1971, which required all federal candidates, including presidential candidates, to disclose full and detailed reporting of campaign contributions and expenditures.

In 1974, amendments to FECA expanded public funding provisions to include presidential primary elections and nominating conventions of national parties.

Rep. Van Hollen, meanwhile, said the Presidential Funding Act would fix what amounts to a broken system.

“Don’t dismantle it, modernize it,” he said. “Fix it because it did stand the test of time for many years. Like many things, this requires a modernization effort to bring it fully into the 21st century. And that’s what this legislation does.”