Editor’s Note: Fred Wertheimer is president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan, non-profit organization that works to strengthen US democracy and empower citizens in the political process. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion articles at CNN.
Joe Biden’s acceptance of the Democratic nomination for President has brought him closer to accomplishing a mission he started 47 years ago: to create a system of public financing for presidential and congressional elections.
Waiting to oppose in the Senate, however, is an individual who stood with Biden in 1973 in calling for public financing of elections. But that politician then took a very different path. Today, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is the nation’s leading opponent of Biden’s public financing goal – and of just about every other campaign finance reform.
The Biden mission began in the middle of the Watergate scandals. I was present at its inception: While waiting to testify about campaign finance reform before the Senate Rules Committee in June 1973, I watched the then 30-year-old Sen. Biden testify. As legislative director of Common Cause, I was there to advocate for public financing as an essential response to the historic Watergate campaign finance scandals, which included sales of ambassadorships and government decisions made in favor of large donors.
Much to my surprise, the brand new senator from Delaware presented a powerful case to the Committee on the “absolute need for us to begin to finance elections for all federal offices.”
Public financing, he explained “would allow candidates – incumbents and challengers alike – to compete more on the basis of merit than on the size of the pocketbook – free from … special-interest backers.” Biden described it as “the swiftest and surest way to purge our elections system of the corruption, that, whatever the safeguards, money inevitably brings.”
That same year, McConnell, a 31-year-old Republican county chair in Kentucky, wrote in a 1973 Louisville Courier Journal op-ed that “any law that maintains the private contribution system to finance public elections” is “but a Band-Aid on a cancer.”
McConnell cited Republican President Theodore Roosevelt’s call to end private financing of presidential campaigns and wrote, “Clearly, public financing at least for presidential elections is an idea whose time has come.”
He proposed in his op-ed a series of reforms to address the “questionable, or downright illicit, practices” in the private funding system: public financing, full campaign finance disclosure, contribution limits, spending limits and effective enforcement.
Though united behind public financing at that moment, the long Senate careers of Biden and McConnell led to diametrically opposed positions on election financing, as well as on so much else.
Biden would continue on to become a leading champion of public financing; McConnell would become the nation’s leading opponent of this reform – and of the other campaign finance reforms he had called for in his op-ed.
Biden’s testimony helped lead the way to Congress’s 1974 comprehensive campaign finance reform legislation, which created a new system of public financing of presidential elections – which McConnell had called for in his op-ed.
That system served the nation well for seven presidential races, with nearly every major party candidate and every President using it. The system eventually broke down in the 2000s when Congress failed to modernize its benefits to respond to the dramatic increases in the costs of presidential campaigns.
As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote in 2006, “public financing of presidential campaigns, instituted in response to the Watergate scandals of the early 1970s, was that rare reform that accomplished exactly what it was supposed to achieve.”
In the 1990s, Biden joined with Senators Bill Bradley and John Kerry to take the lead in sponsoring and promoting legislation to create a system of public financing for congressional elections as well.
In 2001, during the Senate debate on the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as the McCain-Feingold law, Biden explained in stark terms his support of public financing of elections. “Either all of America decides who runs for office,” he said, “or only a few people. It’s as simple as that.”
Meanwhile, McConnell led the opposition to the McCain-Feingold legislation – and lost badly. “The worst day of my political life,” he said years later, “was when President George W. Bush signed McCain-Feingold into law.”
In 2016, Biden spelled out why he felt so strongly about public financing when he said, “If you want to change overnight, instantaneously, the electoral process in America and the way we handle issues, have public financing. I guarantee you it would change overnight.”
McConnell spent his 35-year Senate career attacking public financing of elections – using filibusters when in the minority to prevent votes on the legislation and, as Senate majority leader, refusing to schedule votes on public financing or any other campaign finance reform bills.
In 2019, public financing of elections returned to the national stage in a new form. The House of Representatives passed H.R. 1, historic democracy reform legislation that featured a new, small donor based, public matching funds system for federal elections.
This proposed system of public financing, unlike previous proposals, is not funded by any taxpayer dollars, Rather, it is funded by a small surcharge on penalties and fees paid to the government by corporate and corporate executive lawbreakers, and wealthy tax cheats.
The system would free officeholders from the iron grip of influence-seeking funders, empower tens of millions of Americans by combining their small donations with multiple public matching funds and allow officeholders to spend far less time raising money and far more time serving their constituents.
In addition to small-donor financing and other campaign finance reforms, H.R. 1 includes groundbreaking reforms to address voter suppression and discrimination, partisan gerrymandering and the unprecedented self-dealing and ethics abuses of President Donald Trump and his administration.
True to form, McConnell, as Senate majority leader, refused to schedule H.R.1 for a vote. He falsely described the bill as providing “new taxpayer subsidies” for candidates and made clear he wanted no part of the comprehensive democracy reform legislation.
Biden’s position is the exact opposite. An April 16 statement by End Citizens United endorsing Biden stated his position on H.R. 1 as provided to the group, “A first priority of a Biden administration, will be to lead on a comprehensive set of reforms like those reflected in the For the People Act (H.R. 1) to end special interest control of Washington and protect the voice and vote of every American.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has vowed H.R. 1 will be a top priority for the House in the 2021 Congress – as it was in the current one, where it was the first order of business. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY)also has said it would be a top priority if Democrats win control of the Senate.
Thus, the stage is set in 2021 to enact the landmark democracy reforms in H.R. 1 if current polling that puts Biden ahead of Trump
If McConnell moves to use the filibuster to block H.R. 1, a majority of senators will have to be prepared to override the filibuster rules to enact these democracy reforms, as former President Barack Obama recently suggested in his eulogy for the late Rep. John Lewis.
In his 1973 Senate testimony, Biden said that if he accomplishes nothing else in his Senate term except to “make some little impact on moving us toward the public financing of elections, I would consider my stint in the Senate a success.”
His moment has arrived. A President Biden could make public financing of elections happen early next year – and end the quest he began almost five decades ago.