Udall, Price, Van Hollen Introduce EMPOWER Act to Modernize Presidential Campaign Public Financing System

Much-needed reform increases federal match to 6:1, restores power to small donors, ensures candidates can compete despite Citizens United

U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and U.S. Representatives David Price (D-N.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) announced that they have introduced legislation to reduce the influence of money in presidential elections by empowering candidates who decline support from wealthy special interests. With mega-donors exerting increasing influence on elections and increasing public disgust for out-of-control special interest electioneering, the Empowering Mass Participation to Offset the Wealthy’s Electoral Role (EMPOWER) Act would modernize the presidential public financing system to help publicly funded candidates compete. By increasing the government’s match for small donations to 6:1, increasing the ability of political parties to financially support candidates and taking other important steps, the bill would help restore the public’s trust that they – not a few wealthy donors – can affect the outcome of our presidential elections.
The presidential public financing system is one of the country’s most significant post-Watergate campaign finance reforms. It offers public matching funds to candidates who demonstrate their viability by raising small contributions. In exchange, participating candidates must abide by voluntary limits on private fundraising. Public financing has helped level the playing field for lesser-know presidential candidates, funding almost every presidential campaign for more than two decades. One of the original champions in Congress of public financing legislation was former U.S. Rep. Mo Udall (D-Ariz.), who ran for president in 1976. Several candidates have benefited, including President Ronald Reagan. But the program has not been updated since 1974, and it has become increasingly inadequate for modern, post-Citizens United presidential campaigns.

“With the 2016 campaign already getting started, we urgently need a comprehensive plan to roll back big money in politics, which is why I’m leading the push to amend the Constitution to overturn Citizens United. But meanwhile, Congress must act to fix the presidential campaign financing system so it works for today’s candidates and grassroots donors,” Udall said. “Our democracy should be built on the power of ordinary citizens, not a few billionaires with huge checkbooks. But when it comes to presidential elections, one look at recent headlines shows that’s no longer the case. By empowering voters to impact elections, we can restore faith in our democracy and encourage even more people to participate. My uncle Mo Udall was a champion for public campaign financing in the wake of the Watergate scandal, and I’m proud to follow in his footsteps by pushing for this reform.”

“Presidential public financing was a landmark post-Watergate reform, but the system needs modernizing for the Super PAC era, when a few wealthy donors outspend millions of ordinary citizens,” Price said. “Empowering small-dollar donations with a matching system would be an important first step in taking our elections back from billionaires and corporations.”

“With secret special interest spending reaching epic proportions in our electoral process, it is more important than ever to have a system that gives individual voters a voice,” Van Hollen said. “We will keep fighting to make our democracy more accountable to the American people, not well-heeled special interests.”

The EMPOWER Act would modernize the public financing system by increasing public matching funds available to candidates and enhancing the role of donors who contribute $250 or less by increasing the match to 6:1 (from 1:1). The bill would also eliminate spending limits on participating candidates, require publicly funded candidates to agree to accept contributions of no more than $1,000, empower national parties to compete alongside Super PACs by allowing them to make unlimited expenditures for publicly funded candidates, ensure candidates have broad support to qualify for public financing by requiring them to first raise a minimum amount to qualify for the program, and increase funding for the program through the voluntary income tax “check-off.”

Several leading campaign finance reform organizations support the legislation, including Brennan Center for Justice, Campaign Legal Center, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Common Cause, Democracy 21, Issue One, League of Women Voters, People For the American Way, and Public Citizen. The New York Times editorial board has endorsed several ideas to reform the presidential public financing system, many of which are incorporated into the bill.

Core Provisions of the Empowering Mass Participation to Offset the Wealthy’s Electoral Role (EMPOWER) Act

– Eliminates spending limits on participating candidates: Candidate spending limits are no longer viable in the wake of Citizens United since outside groups can now make unlimited expenditures funded by unlimited contributions to oppose candidates. There would be a limit on the total amount of matching contributions available to a presidential candidate, to avoid draining public funds.

– Increases the amount of matching funds for participating candidates:The first $250 of contributions by individuals to presidential candidates would be matched with public funds at a 6:1 ratio, increased from the current 1:1 match. For example, a candidate participating in the system would receive $1,500 in public funds for a $250 contribution, and would end up with a total of $1,750. This would provide important new incentives for citizens to give and for candidates to seek small donations from supporters.

– Requires participating candidates to agree to accept contributions of no more than $1,000: The current individual contribution limit of $2,700 per donor, per election, would be reduced to $1,000 per donor, per election, for candidates who participate in the system. The present contribution limit would remain unchanged for candidates who do not participate in the system.

– Empowers national parties to compete alongside Super PAC dollars:In order to allow candidates to respond to a deluge of Super PAC dollars, national parties could make unlimited expenditures in coordination with candidates participating in the system, provided the unlimited expenditures were made from a pool of contributions raised by the party that was limited to $1,000 per donor, per year.

– Ensures candidates have broad support to qualify for public financing: To qualify for public financing, a presidential candidate would have to raise a threshold amount of individual contributions – totaling $25,000 in each of 20 states – counting only the first $250 of any individual contribution toward the threshold.

– Increases funding for the presidential campaign financing system:The bill would increase the current voluntary income tax “check-off” amount from $3 to $20 per individual and from $6 to $40 for a married couple, and index these amounts for inflation. Additionally, the bill would allow Americans, through their taxes, to donate to the public financing system fund.