Finance reform takes a hit

Our view: Sen. Obama's decision to reject public financing is wrong

June 20, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama's decision to become the first presidential candidate to walk away from public financing of his campaign is understandable but disappointing. He has been remarkably successful in using the Internet to amass millions in small donations. But the flood of private money into national political campaigns in recent years and his decision to abandon efforts to reach an agreement with Sen. John McCain to use public funding is a major disappointment for those struggling to restrain the pernicious influence of special interests in American politics.

Mr. Obama described the public financing system, created in 1976 after the Watergate scandal, as broken in its present form and said he faced "opponents who've become masters at gaming this broken system." Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, a leading champion of campaign finance reform, agreed yesterday that the system was broken but said Senator Obama's decision to turn his back on public financing was "wrong."

A key flaw in the current campaign spending laws is the emergence since the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 of independent political organizations created to influence the outcome of campaigns without formal connection to either candidate. Independent groups reported spending more than $200 million on the 2006 elections and more than $440 million on the last presidential election in 2004.

If Mr. Obama had decided to accept the public financing this year, he would have received $84.1 million from the federal treasury to fund his fall campaign, and his spending would have been limited to that amount. But the senator appears well positioned to raise far more than that this summer and fall. He raised $95 million in February and March alone, most of it in small contributions collected on the Internet.

Senator McCain, who appears unlikely to match Senator Obama's fundraising, accused the presumptive Democratic nominee of breaking a promise by rejecting the public funding. But Mr. Obama said he promised only to attempt to negotiate an agreement on public financing. Mr. Obama also argues that the small average size of his contributions and the large numbers of contributors offers protection against the dire influence of fat cats. But his decision is seen as an ominous development by reformers.

Senator Obama has pledged to seek strong new finance reforms if elected. That's a promise he should remember.

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