Public Financing: A Two-Sided Coin

Decency could return to politics once again. No, I don’t mean decency in the sense of honesty or fewer bribes from slick lobbyists. Nor do I mean less party jockeying and sober apologies with the wife on one side and the mistress on the other.
I mean decency in just one matter of the political process: finance.
One of the major recent attempts at campaign finance reform, the Fair Elections Now Act, authored by Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania), introduces a reasonable framework for publicly financed Senate elections, which would theoretically cut down on wealthy, unqualified candidates beating impoverished, brilliant candidates (even though there is rarely such an obvious dichotomy between the two).
Besides the fact that it has not passed yet, why is this concept only theoretically possible? This is mainly because the act emphasizes that “qualified candidates” would be able to receive the money. This implies that one would be able to opt out of the program and be publicly financed.
However, this doesn’t really cut it. Something should pass that only allows candidates to have an allotted amount of dollars that is proportional to the state’s population in which they are campaigning. Period. The end. However, even though taxpayer money seems infinite, it is most definitely a finite resource. So, if there were a slew of famous and unqualified candidates like adult film star Mary Carey, “Hustler” publisher Larry Flynt and Arnold Schwarzenegger, as there was in the California recall election, we, theoretically, would have to finance them.
One way to prevent this is to allow only one candidate per registered party to receive the money. For Senate elections, unlike presidential elections, the people don’t determine which Democrat or Republican runs, so the selection would be made on a party level without personal finances making an impact in the primaries (because there are none). The party would have to be registered with the state at least a year before voting day to prevent people like myself from registering as the sole member and candidate of the “Can I getchyo numbah?” party and getting my slice of the election funds.
But wait, you say. That just puts the power in the hands of the people who choose which parties can be approved. Sadly, that’s not really the case. I say sadly because there isn’t enough third-party sentiment in the state to be worth even a damn. Like it or not, we are a bureaucracy and a two-party system. Those two parties would probably get preferential treatment, and a tiered financed system would be implemented by the powers that be.
I really don’t want this article to be a glaring look at what’s wrong with the political system (more specifically the election system), as there are too many articles, nearly all of them more comprehensive, more convincing and generally of a higher quality than mine. I just want to emphasize that this act may not be the end-all-be-all that you want it to be.
The flipside is that private financing may not be so bad. Sure, you get your George W. Bushes with private financing, but Barack Obama may not have won without private financing. He initially chose public financing, but realized that his grassroots campaign was so strong that he opted out and took private money. Plus, how else would we have heard the infamous “cling to guns and religion” from President-elect Barack Obama unless he could hold fundraisers with wealthy donors?
So keep this in mind. Public financing is a two-sided coin—it’s usually a good thing but not always. And decency most definitely will not return to politics, so don’t worry.

Michael Boileau is a third-year business economics major. He can be reached at mboileau@uci.edu.