February 24, 2021

Van Hollen, Luján Reintroduce Campaign Finance Reform Bills to Strengthen the FEC, Revitalize Presidential Public Financing

Today, U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) reintroduced two campaign finance reform bills to bring dramatic and necessary change to our nation’s current inadequate campaign finance system. The first, theEmpowering Mass Participation to Offset the Wealthy's Electoral Role (EMPOWER) Act, would revitalize presidential campaign public financing and is led by Congressman David Price (D-N.C.) in the House. The second, the Restoring Integrity to America’s Elections Act, would eliminate gridlock and strengthen the Federal Elections Committee (FEC) and is led by Congressman Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) in the House of Representatives. Both bills, which have been previously introduced by Senator Van Hollen and their respective House Members, are incorporated within the sweeping For the People Act. 

“Free and fair elections are a central principle of our democracy. But since the 2010 Citizens United decision, our nation’s campaign finance laws have allowed the voices of big corporations and special interests to drown out everyday Americans. It’s past time we put an end to it. These bills will help tackle these issues, by leveling the playing field in presidential races and revamping the FEC to eliminate gridlock and allow it to fairly carry out our campaign finance laws. We must root out dark money now and return the power of our elections to the American people – these bills aim to do just that,” said Senator Van Hollen.

With the growing influence of big money in politics, it’s time for Congress to reform America’s outdated campaign finance system. These bicameral bills will help ensure candidates put the interests of voters above special interests, while strengthening accountability for those who violate campaign law,” said Senator Luján. “After leading campaign reform efforts in the House, I look forward to working with Senator Van Hollen to advocate for fairer campaigns in the Senate.”

“Presidential public financing was a landmark post-Watergate reform, but in the wake of the Citizens United court ruling and the explosion of mega-donors exerting increasing influence on our politics, the system is in desperate need of modernization,” said Congressman David Price, House sponsor of the EMPOWER Act. “Empowering small-dollar donors and ordinary voters would be an important first step in taking our elections back from billionaires and corporations.”

“The Federal Elections Commission was set up to be the referee, tasked with blowing the whistle on politicians and groups that cheat and undermine the interests of ‘We the People’,” said Representative Derek Kilmer, House sponsor of the Restoring Integrity to America’s Elections Act. “Unfortunately, in recent years, the ref often hasn’t even been on the field with the Commission often seeming more dysfunctional than even Congress. It’s time to get the referee back on the field. That’s what this bill is about. Meaningful, substantial reforms at the Commission need to happen so it can get back to weeding out campaign finance abuse and holding those who skirt the rules accountable.”


The presidential public financing system is one of the country's most significant post-Watergate campaign finance reforms. It offers public matching funds to presidential primary candidates who demonstrate their viability by raising small contributions and, in exchange, abide by voluntary limits on campaign spending. It also offers a grant of public funds to presidential general election candidates who agree to forego private fundraising. Public financing has helped level the playing field for lesser-known presidential candidates, funding almost every presidential campaign for more than two decades after its enactment. Unfortunately, in today’s world of unlimited contributions from corporations and individuals through super PACs, it is no longer feasible for presidential candidates to participate in the presidential public financing system as it currently stands. The Citizens United decision and related court cases have led to not only massive increases in campaign fundraising but a larger share of those funds coming from special interest groups who now wield an outsized influence on our political process. The EMPOWER Act would modernize the presidential public financing system and bring back a competitive public funding option for presidential candidates that encourages public participation and incentivizes candidates to be responsive to every American instead of wealthy hidden campaign donors. A fact sheet on the legislation can be found hereBill text can be found here.

The EMPOWER Act is endorsed by: Democracy21, Common Cause, End Citizens United, Public Citizen, the Brennan Center for Justice, and NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice.

“Democracy 21 applauds Senators Van Hollen and Luján and Representative Price for introducing the Empower Act, which would create a voluntary new, small donor, public matching funds system for presidential systems,” said Fred Wertheimer, President of Democracy21. “The Empower Act will modernize the presidential financing system and restore its great value to the American people as an alternative way for candidates to run for president without being indebted and obligated to big money funders.” 

“All Americans, regardless of the size of their wallets, deserve to have a strong voice in our government. However, for far too long, big moneyed special interests have had a megaphone to drown out the voices of everyday Americans,” said Aaron Scherb, Director of Legislative Affairs at Common Cause. “The EMPOWER Act would significantly help to amplify the power of ordinary Americans in our democracy, and Common Cause appreciates the leadership of Senators Van Hollen and Luján for introducing this bill.”

“The EMPOWER Act and Restoring Integrity to America's Elections Act are critical to empowering everyday people in politics and fixing our broken campaign finance system. Sen Van Hollen has long been a leader in the fight for transparency and accountability in our elections and we applaud his introduction of these important bills,” said Tiffany Muller, president, End Citizens United/Let America Vote Action Fund.

“Nearly $7 billion was spent to elect our president in 2020 – almost a three-fold increase over the previous presidential election. Today, a viable presidential candidate must have a sea of very wealthy friends to run for office. It should never have come to this. The EMPOWER Act would replace this system of wealthy special interests financing presidential elections with a small-donor public financing program that has a proven track record for getting Big Money out of our elections. Public Citizen heartily endorses the EMPOWER Act,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen.

“In the wake of the most expensive election in U.S. history, at a time of record levels of wealth inequality, we need to give all candidates a path to raise their campaign funds from ordinary people representing our nation’s diversity. The EMPOWER Act would revamp the voluntary presidential public financing system by creating a 6:1 match for small donations in both the primary and general election, giving a broad range of Americans a louder voice in the decisions that affect their lives,” said Dan Weiner, Deputy Director, Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

“The current system of privately financing political campaigns to run for public office fundamentally distorts the principle of service to the common good and democratic fairness.  Would we want our fire fighters to be financed by the wealthiest homeowners and neighborhood associations?  How might that impact responsiveness? When elected officials feel beholden to large donors, it can pull their attention away from the public interest or even conflict with the needs of their own constituents. Even worse, the perception of a lawmaker bound to special interests or wealthy donors fundamentally undermines public faith in government.  Creating an alternative financing system—like in the proposed EMPOWER Act—provides a transparent funding mechanism that amplifies small donations while building trust that public servants are, indeed, serving their constituents and the public in good faith. Funding this system with penalty fees and settlements on tax offenders and corporate cheats justly channels abused power back into the hands of the people,”said Sr. Quincy Howard, NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice. 

The Restoring Integrity to America’s Elections Act

The FEC has increasingly become deadlocked on critically important decisions because of the even partisan divide of its six commissioners. In 2016, nearly 40% of regular enforcement cases deadlocked, compared to 4.2% in 2006. Worse yet, those votes that did not deadlock were nearly all housekeeping matters or minor violations. The Restoring Integrity to America’s Elections Act will revitalize the FEC by breaking the deadlock of its leadership structure and strengthening its enforcement actions through faster and more efficient processes. Under this bill the number of appointed commissioners would be reduced from six to five, with two members from each major party and one independent. This change would bring the FEC more in line with how most other independent agencies are structured and end deadlock, while ensuring the president’s party would not hold the majority. Additionally, the legislation creates a Blue-Ribbon Advisory Panel, convened by the president to recommend individuals for appointment to the Commission. A fact sheet on the legislation can be found hereBill text can be found here.

The Restoring Integrity to America’s Elections Act is endorsed by: Democracy21, End Citizens United, Common Cause, and Public Citizen. Yesterday, two former FEC Commissioners, Trevor Potter and Ann Ravel, endorsed provisions of the Restoring Integrity to America’s Elections Act in the For the People Act in a letter to Congressional leadership.

“Democracy 21 applauds Senators Van Hollen and Luján and Representative Kilmer for introducing the Restoring Integrity to America’s Election Act which would repair the hopelessly ineffectual Federal Election Commission,” said Fred Wertheimer, President of Democracy21.

“Americans deserve to know who is trying to influence their voices and their votes. However, Mitch McConnell has ensured gridlock at the Federal Election Commission by promoting a bloc of FEC commissioners with records of working against the very laws they are charged with upholding,” said Beth Rotman, Director of Money in Politics & Ethics at Common Cause. “It’s long past due for the FEC to work for everyday Americans who can’t start a super PAC or make a big political contribution, and we applaud Senators Van Hollen and Luján for introducing the Restoring Integrity to America’s Elections Act to help ensure the FEC works for all of us.”

“The FEC is broken, roiled in partisan gridlock. Under the current system, the party leaders of the senate select commissioners, which has carried over the same party polarization that has plagued Congress to the FEC. Deadlocked votes along party lines have gone from fewer than 2 percent through most of the agency’s history to a stifling 34 percent today, rendering the FEC toothless and dysfunctional. Restoring the Integrity of America’s Elections Act is critically-needed legislation that would end these partisan deadlocks and bring the campaign finance cop back on the beat,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen.