June 20, 2019

Van Hollen, Udall Reintroduce EMPOWER Act to Modernize Presidential Campaign Public Financing System

Today, U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) reintroduced legislation to reduce the influence of money in presidential elections by empowering candidates who decline support from wealthy special interests. With mega-donors exerting increasing influence on elections and increasing public disgust for out-of-control special interest electioneering, S.1917, the Empowering Mass Participation to Offset the Wealthy's Electoral Role (EMPOWER) Act would modernize the presidential public financing system to help publicly funded candidates compete. The bill would increase the government's match for small donations to 6:1, increasing the ability of political parties to financially support candidates and restoring the public's trust that they - not a few wealthy donors - can affect the outcome of our presidential elections.

“Since the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, special interests are pumping more and more money into our elections in an effort to influence the process to their advantage. Now more than ever, we need a system that gives individual voters a voice. This legislation will accomplish that goal by creating a more even playing field for all candidates,” said Senator Van Hollen, a co-sponsor of The For the People Act. “I’m proud to join my colleague in introducing this bill, and I will continue fighting against the harmful influence of money in politics.”

"With the 2020 campaign already underway, Congress must act to fix the presidential campaign financing system so it works for today's candidates and grassroots donors," said Udall, the lead sponsor of The For the People Act, a comprehensive package of electoral reforms supported by every Senate and House Democrat. "Our democracy should be built on the power of ordinary citizens, not a few billionaires with huge checkbooks. Too many Americans have every reason to believe that their government no longer answers to them – but by empowering voters to impact elections, we can restore faith in our democracy and encourage even more people to participate. My uncle Mo Udall was a champion for public campaign financing in the wake of the Watergate scandal, and I'm proud to follow in his footsteps by pushing for this reform. It’s time for Leader McConnell to stop standing in the way of our efforts to reform our badly broken campaign finance system.”

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.??

Several leading campaign finance reform organizations support the legislation, including Democracy 21, Common Cause, Stand Up America, End Citizen’s United Action Fund, People for the American Way, Franciscan Action Network, Center for, Emergent Diplomacy, NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, Brennan Center for Justice, Reclaim Our Democracy, and Public Citizen.

“When big money special interests have a megaphone in government and push distorted policies that primarily benefit a small group of wealthy people, our communities and our children often suffer as a result of those policies,” said Heather Ferguson, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, a non-partisan government watchdog group. “All Americans deserve a strong voice in government, even if they can’t make a big campaign contribution, hire a lobbyist, or start a super PAC, and we commend the leadership of Senator Udall and Senator Van Hollen for introducing the Empower Act to amplify the voices of all Americans, no matter the size of their wallet.”

Core Provisions of the Empowering Mass Participation to Offset the Wealthy's Electoral Role (EMPOWER) Act:

- Eliminates spending limits on participating candidates: Candidate spending limits are no longer viable in the wake of Citizens United since outside groups can now make unlimited expenditures funded by unlimited contributions to oppose candidates. There would be a limit on the total amount of matching contributions available to a presidential candidate, to avoid draining public funds. 

- Increases the amount of matching funds for participating candidates: The first $200 of contributions by individuals to presidential candidates would be matched with public funds at a 6:1 ratio, increased from the current 1:1 match for the first $250. For example, a candidate participating in the system would receive $1,200 in public funds for a $200 contribution, and would end up with a total of $1,400. This would provide important new incentives for citizens to give and for candidates to seek small donations from supporters.

- Requires participating candidates to agree to accept contributions of no more than $1,000: The current individual contribution limit of $2,800 per donor, per election, would be reduced to $1,000 per donor, per election, for candidates who participate in the system. The present contribution limit would remain unchanged for candidates who do not participate in the system.

- Empowers national parties to compete alongside Super PAC dollars: In order to allow candidates to respond to a deluge of Super PAC dollars, national parties could make $100,000,000 in expenditures in coordination with their general election presidential candidates participating in the system.

The EMPOWER Act was included in both S.949, the For the People Act and H.R.1.

The full text of the bill can be found here. A one-page summary can be found here.