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Column: Public Funding Is Broken, Just Not For The Reasons Obama Gave

This story was written by Robert Soave, Michigan Daily


Just as my dissatisfaction with the two presidential candidates was at its peak, I read a news headline last Thursday that filled me with a little hope. Sen. Barack Obama has decided to opt out of the public funding system for his general election campaign, becoming the first major candidate in history to do so.

In the public funding system, the American taxpayers finance presidential campaigns. The program was first implemented in 1973 when an innocent-looking check box first appeared on tax return forms, asking for just $1 to go to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. A candidate who accepts public funding must agree to certain spending limitations and supposedly cannot rely on massive sums of money from lobbyists and other outside sources.

Unfortunately, all those American tax dollars are basically guaranteed to go to the generic Democrat and Republican in each presidential election. As candidates of "major" political parties, they receive a fixed amount of money - more than $84 million in 2008. Candidates from "minor" parties can receive funding, but their eligibility is based upon their party's percentage of the vote in the previous election.

Even if these candidates earn the required 5 percent of the vote, they still don't receive the cash windfall that major parties do. Minor candidates receive proportional funding based upon their vote-getting percentage. This makes it very difficult for third parties to gain traction. In order to receive enough funds to compete with the two established parties, they need to do well in an election. But to do well in an election, they need funds, creating a relatively hopeless situation for third parties.

Republicans and Democrats were no doubt quite aware of this political Catch-22 when they passed the Federal Election Campaign Act that started this unfair money-raising scheme. FECA has strengthened the major parties' duopoly on presidential elections for years. It shouldn't be a surprise that the only thing the two major parties can agree on is keeping the little guys out of government.

So I was glad to hear that Obama would forgo getting public money - until I read his reasons. He decried the current public funding system as "broken" because he felt John McCain and his special interest supporters are subverting the regulations and limits that accompany public funding. He did clarify, however, that he supports "a robust system of public financing of elections."

This clarification should be a major disappointment for anyone who thinks that Obama is a champion of the common man. Public campaign funding is a broken system, but not because of Obama's weak argument that McCain is abusing it. The public funding system has been "broken" since its inception 35 years ago, when the dominant parties created it in order to perpetuate the elitist two-party system.

This is why Obama's clarification that he fully supports the idea of public funding speaks volumes about his true character. He supports the idea that the American people should pay to keep Republicans and Democrats in power. The only reason he is refusing public funding is he wants to raise more money than McCain by not accepting any spending limits.

But McCain is no hero, either. He hasn't criticized the notion of public funding - he has greedily accepted it, in hopes that the American taxpayers will help him win the election for the Republicans.

Obama, McCain and ambitious politicians like them always pretend to stand up for the common man and support democracy. But how can their words be genuine when they participate in an election system that persecutes candidates who do not have an "R" or a "D" after their name? This hypocrisy is inexcusable. Nothing will be able to change solong as the two-party system maintains its financial stranglehold over the presidential election process.

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