WASHINGTON -- This past week's passage of a measure to end the public funding of presidential elections was little more than a symbolic gesture by House Republicans who never supported the system and were eager to tout the money that could be saved by defunding it.
Still, the move has campaign-finance activists worried. It's not because the end is in sight for public financing -- the Senate likely won't pass the bill. It's because the structure of reforms instituted following Watergate are suffering a death by a thousand cuts: first labeled unconstitutional, then ineffectual, and ultimately, with enough time, scrubbed from the books.
With that fear in mind, reformers have begun pushing harder for the president to take on a larger role in defending the laws on the books.
"I think President Obama ought to not think about reform as a policy matter," said David Donnelly, the national campaigns director for the Public Campaign Action Fund. "The White House ought to engage Americans in indicting the way that politics is done in Washington and they ought to do it whether or not there are clear policy objectives. They ought to do it as a means to press Congress on the way politics works."
Obama has pledged to oppose the defunding bill in the unlikely event it clears the Senate. But in many respects, his administration has become a prime example of how antiquated campaign-finance laws have become and how secondary they are considered in the larger political debate.
In the leadup to last week's State of the Union address, White House officials put out a fact sheet claiming that the president would reiterate his support for the Disclose Act during the speech. But when Obama spoke for nearly an hour before a bicameral gathering of Congress, the bill, which would have required nearly all groups spending money on political ads to name their donors, wasn't mentioned.
"[I]t's not for any lack of enthusiasm about the issue because we feel very, very strongly about it and we're going to continue to push for it," White House senior adviser David Axelrod said. "There are a number of things that got trimmed out at the end just because, to be brutally frank, as we ran through the speech it was fairly lengthy and we just cut it down."
Axelrod went on to affirm the president's support for the Disclose Act, calling the "unbridled and secret special-interest corporate spending" in campaigns an "insidious" development. But the fact that the bill couldn't find its way past the chopping block is telling. During the 2010 State of the Union, Obama made a big show of criticizing the Supreme Court justices in attendance for their Citizens United ruling -- the decision that spurred the Disclose Act's introduction. By 2011, the bill was an afterthought.
That could very well be because, despite falling just one vote short in the Senate during the last Congress, the Disclose Act now has no immediate chance of passage. The bill would have to be taken up again in the House of Representatives for that to happen. And Republican control of that chamber means it's unlikely to even be brought to the floor.
Even if there was the appetite for another shot at the bill, campaign-finance experts aren't entirely sure it's worth the effort. One top operative said Disclose was emblematic of the reform community's outdated thinking.
"The lawmakers that continue to listen to those that helped draft all those past reform laws are going to fall into the same trap of missing both where public opinion is on this issue and what policy options are available," said the campaign-finance operative, who would speak frankly about the frictions within the reform community only on condition of anonymity. "We are trying to recreate McCain-Feingold Act, which we know doesn't engage one additional citizen in the process and runs into constitutional problems. ... The debate Obama should be having with the country is not about fixing a broke system, it is about whether he wants Americans to have control of the process. "
Public funding, the operative argued, engages voters in ways that disclosure simply can't. In that vein, the Fair Elections Now Act, which would create a voluntary system of public funding for Congressional elections, would be a better vehicle to push than the Disclose Act.
And yet, there is evidence to the contrary. While the notion of evening of the campaign donation playing field has always polled well, the number of actual participants in the system has steadily slipped. Whereas, in 1908, 28.7 percent of taxpayers checked the tax-filing box to provide a $3 to the Treasury to fund presidential campaigns, that figure dipped to 7.3 percent in 2009.
"What we have to do now is to recognize we have a longer-term battle on our hands than we did in the last congress and build support and be ready when the opportunity comes to enact this," said Fred Wertheimer, the founder and president of the campaign-finance reform group Democracy 21 and an author of the Disclose Act. "I don't see a conflict between going for disclosure now as an immediate effort and building support for public financing over time."
Then there is the issue of Obama himself. While the president nominally supports public funding, he chose to opt out of the system during his 2008 election campaign and is almost assuredly going to do the same when he runs again in 2012.
"The system doesn't work anymore," Slate's Dave Weigel wrote last week. "[T]he fact that only one Republican blanched at supporting [the House Bill] proves, one more time, that campaign finance reform in this fashion is dodo-dead as a political issue."
With a split over priorities and the White House choosing electoral pragmatism over lead-by-example reformism, campaign-finance activists have grown dour about their prospects of passing any legislative fix in the near future. If anything, the emerging consensus is that the remaining framework will come under further assault.
"We have what appears to be a hostile Supreme Court. We have a Federal Election Commission... that blocks every important enforcement action," said Wertheimer. "That's the backdrop. And now congressional Republicans want to go after the rest of the campaign finance laws. The fight over the presidential system is step one... and step two is going to be to eliminate contribution limits or make them so high as to be meaningless. The end product of this, if they are successful will be to take us back to the pre-Watergate period of campaign finance laws."