News. Debate. Community. Levers for a better democracy.

Public financing of campaigns now a presidential campaign issue

The most expansive proposal to reform the political system (so far) by a presidential aspirant comes from Kirsten Gillibrand, who says every voter should get $600 in taxpayer money to donate to candidates for federal office.

The New York senator, who's among more than a dozen candidates mired in single digits in early polling in the 2020 Democratic race, unveiled her "Democracy Dollars" plan Wednesday in an interview with NBC News.

Her rationale for such a bold approach to reducing the role of big money in politics: "If you want to accomplish anything that the American people want us to accomplish — whether it's health care as a right, better public schools, better economy — you have to take on the greed and corruption that determine everything in Washington."

Gillibrand would allow every voter to obtain 60 vouchers worth $10 each for every campaign cycle. Half would be good for donations in the primaries, half for the general election. They would be earmarked equally for House candidates, Senate contests and the presidential race. The congressional vouchers would have to be spent in the voter's home state.

For the candidates, the big hitch is that only those who agree to steer clear of big-dollar donations could get the public financing. The maximum donation they could accept under the Gillibrand plan would be $200 per campaign – a tiny fraction of the $5,600 maximum "hard dollar" limit today. (Fewer than 1 percent of voters write political checks for more than $200, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and those who do tend to be richer, whiter and more male than the overall population. So the Gillibrand plan would effectively spread the power of individual voters' political money across all demographic groups.)

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter

The campaign didn't provide a cost estimate but did provide a funding mechanism: limiting the business deduction for executive compensation, which it estimates would raise $60 billion over a decade. Subsidizing political giving and raising corporate taxes are sure to meet fierce resistance from Republicans in Congress if such a bill is ever pushed from the White House.

The only similar plan now is in Seattle, where local voters decided by referendum that each of them should get a $25 voucher to spend on municipal races. The House-passed political overhaul bill, HR 1, would create a pilot program with vouchers also worth $25. But it's a dead letter in the GOP Senate despite co-sponsorships from every Democratic senator – even those who aren't running for president. That puts most of the field in favor of some public financing. (Joe Biden has backed versions of the idea since he was a junior senator in the 1970s.)

© Issue One. All rights reserved.