WASHINGTON – A spate of corruption scandals on Capitol Hill has led to renewed interest in public financing of federal election campaigns, considered by many to be the most drastic and elusive of any election reform proposals out there.
Eight House Democrats are sponsoring the "Let the People Decide Clean Campaign Act," which would take all private money out of U.S. House campaigns and give taxpayer funds to candidates based on their parties' prior performance in their districts.
Under the proposal, candidates who receive less than their opponents because their party did not do well in previous elections can seek additional funding through signed petitions.
"To restore the public's faith in the system, lobby reform is necessary and should be done," said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee and chief sponsor of the public financing proposal. "The only way to address the fundamental problem is to end the abuse of House rules by the Republican leadership and take all private money out of politics."
But independent parties, which typically support public financing of campaigns, are nonetheless wary of Obey's proposal. They say it poses an unfair onus on them to qualify for the funding, thereby reinforcing the dominant two-party system in American politics.
"The goal behind [Obey's bill] is to use public financing of campaigns — itself a sorely needed reform — to eliminate third party challenges in congressional races," said Phil Huckelberry, co-chairman of the Illinois Green Party.
Independents, however, have warmed to a bill sponsored in June 2005 by Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass. The bill, which has 39 Democratic co-sponsors, would give qualifying congressional candidates matching public funding and breaks on broadcast expenses and direct mail in return for set spending limits.
The agreement would be voluntary. If an opponent chooses not to participate, the government will match the participating candidate dollar for dollar to keep up with the opposition. Tierney's bill has been sitting in a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee since last July.
Meanwhile, Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., have said they are considering sponsoring public financing legislation in the Senate.
"When are we going to break away from what has become descending chaos in the way we finance campaigns in this country and move towards something where we can all say with pride: We are first public servants and not first fundraisers and then public servants?" asked Durbin, in a statement to FOXNews.com.
Nick Nyhart, director of Public Campaign, a public financing advocacy group, says recent scandals involving former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, former Rep. Randy Cunningham, R-Calif., Capitol Hill lobbyist Jack Abramoff and others have ripened the prospects of such proposals.
"When there is scandal, that's when people start paying attention to the system, and when they are paying attention, that's when you can start suggesting change," said Nyhart.
DeLay was indicted in September on state money laundering and conspiracy charges stemming from his political action committee sending money to the National Republican Committee, which in turn sent funds to Texas state candidates.
On Thursday, DeLay told FOX News that he has not done anything wrong and will be vindicated at trial for his campaign financing-related charges. He said the effort of Texas District Attorney Ronnie Earle to get a conviction against him is all part of the politics.
"The ends justify the means to Democrats, this whole Ronnie Earle thing is nothing but a political vendetta, a witch hunt, an abuse of power," he said, adding that Earle "is trying to drag it out and play politics with our judicial system in Texas."
Despite what DeLay says about his opponents' motives, the number of bills in the House and Senate to tackle lobbying reform suggest that image problems are now plaguing lawmakers.
A FOX News-Opinion Dynamic survey out Thursday showed 36 percent of the 900 registered voters polled said they approve of the way Democrats are doing their job in Congress while 34 percent said the same of Republicans. The Feb. 28-Mar. 1 poll had a margin of error of 3 percent.
"I hate to see the way people look at us in Congress. They have the lowest regard," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. "I think we're all getting this pox on both our houses because we can't get anything done here. ... The fact that Congress is rated so low, Democrats and Republican, is very disturbing. Now, how can we change it? By working together. It is by saying that we've got to get out of this paralysis here and get moving. The way to start is not to defend lobbyists as Tom DeLay would do, but to say, it is time to clean up our act."
In the Senate, a bipartisan contingent announced last week an agreement to incorporate transparency in the revolving door between lobbying and public service. Reforms are expected to include tougher ethics guidelines and limitations on travel and lobbying gifts. The House is considering similar measures, and already has taken action to stop former lawmakers from lobbying on the House floor.
But so far, public financing of campaigns has not been mentioned in either the House or Senate deliberations.
Obey and others point out that a number of states are now experimenting with some sort of public financing of campaigns. In fact, the Tierney proposal is based in part on a voluntary system now operating in all statewide elections in Arizona and Maine. Connecticut just passed a similar measure in December.
"Its time has come on the congressional level too," said Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for Common Cause, which supports public financing.
"We see it as the ultimate solution for stopping future Abramoff-like scandals," she added. "It's all about money and members of Congress constantly scrambling, trying to raise money for their next campaign re-election. In that, lobbyists become integral to them in trying to help raise the money."
Critics say public financing not only doesn't work, but it may be unconstitutional and is not a popular concept with taxpayers.
Just this week, Vermont's Act 64, which would place limits on fund-raising and spending by candidates and creates guidelines for public financing, faced a seemingly wary Supreme Court, which heard a challenge to the 1997 law.
Critics also point to the current system of voluntary public financing of presidential campaigns, funded, in part, through the $1 box that can be checked on individual federal tax returns. In recent times, presidential candidates who are raising hundreds of millions of dollars in primaries and general elections have frequently chosen not to participate, freeing them from the spending limitations that the public financing rules would impose.
"I think everybody acknowledges its not working anymore," said Larry Noble, director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which does not take a position on whether public financing is the right way to go.
Noble said the stakes seem too high for candidates to agree to spending limits. On top of that, only around 9 percent of Americans check off the donation box on their tax returns .
"In the end, public financing is kind of a fraud," said Bradley Smith, a law professor with Capital University Law School in Ohio, and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. "It really doesn't handle the claim of corruption or claim of inequality … in the end it still doesn't reconcile any of the issues, it doesn't take care of lobbyists."
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and author of "Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption in American Politics," says public financing will not address the money flowing in and out of Washington daily through lobbyists and lawmakers, and it certainly won't keep private money out of campaigns.
"I've been writing about this for 40 years. There is always an unintended consequence, and in this case, [public financing] would push the money from the congressional campaigns and into other channels — party channels, non-party channels, including 527s — and then there will be other groups formed to use [the money]," Sabato said.
"You cannot dam the flow of political money in a democracy and every attempt to do so will fail," he added.
But not trying to free candidates from the money game as well as give non-incumbents and third party candidates better odds to compete is also a failure, say advocates of public financing.
"This tries to maintain a level playing field for candidates," said Nyhart. "And this makes the voice of the voter count again."
The Green Party, one of the nation's largest and most established third parties, says it fully supports public financing, but warns against Obey's proposal. Because third parties or independents typically get a tiny percentage of the vote in elections, they would have to gather many more signatures to participate and attain funding under Obey's plan.
Green Party spokesman Scott McLarty said Obey's plan would just reinforce the frustrating disadvantages of third party candidates in the current system. Any public financing scheme would have to open and equal to all players, he added.
"[It] should give those candidates a fighting chance," McLarty said, noting that the Greens would likely support legislation patterned after the Maine and Arizona plans.
Democratic sources on Capitol Hill concede that the public financing bills are unlikely to get very far in today's Congress, and that a big constitutional battle would likely ensue if the bills were to pass.
"I think it's a long shot, for anyone to think it will be passed in Congress," added Noble.
"The whole lobbying scandal has refocused attention on public financing because some people think it's the only way to get out of this mess," he said. "[However], I don't think anyone believes it will solve the full problem."