Ever since the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 - dubbed "McCain-Feingold" after the two Senators that sponsored it - John McCain has become synonymous with campaign finance reform efforts. In fact, his support has helped earn him his reputation as a "maverick" because the conservatives in his party so opposed the effort.
But the Senator is conspicuously absent from the latest effort.
Senator Russ Feingold, Rep. Martin Meehan, and Rep. Christopher Shays have introduced a bill designed to address the crumbling system for public financing of presidential campaigns. The proposed legislation would increase the amount for the check-off box on people's tax returns to $10 instead of $3, boost matching funds, increase primary spending limits, and bar candidates from declining public funding in the primary and accepting it in the general election. Under the proposal, general election funding would increase to $100 million for the major candidates.
Interestingly, the bill is largely identical to a measure that the three men and Senator McCain introduced in 2003, but McCain is not co-sponsoring the bill this time.
Now we all know John McCain is considering a bid for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, and it's likely his current lack of support for the legislation stems from a desire to avoid criticism if he decides to forgo public financing in that campaign. However, I'd point out that Russ Feingold is also thinking of running for president on the Democratic side, yet he is still sticking by his principles on the matter.
The truth is, there may be legitimate concerns about the current public financing system, this legislation, and even questions about freedom of expression. But given that McCain supported this bill just a few years ago, it's hard to see how withdrawing that support now is for anything other than for said political reasons. If anything, I think this shows how McCain is much more of a cunning politician than the principled "maverick" he and much of the media want us to see him as.
As for the issue itself, though I'm extremely weary of limiting political ads as the 2002 act does, I personally do not think monetary political contributions constitute "free speech" and believe American voters and democracy would greatly benefit from a system entirely built around public financing. People don't like that because it means they have to pay money for it (the current federal fund has struggled to meet its obligations as fewer Americans are checking the box on their tax returns to direct money to the program. In 2005, 9.1% of filers elected to support it, and it's not even at a cost to them), but it would completely eliminate the influence of money from special interests on our candidates - be they corporations, unions, or single-issue groups - funneled via Political Action Committees (PACs).
Plus, everyone would be given an equal amount of money, meaning that campaigns would be based on substantative and relevant issues, not monetary advantage. Wouldn't it be great if candidates were elected on their qualities and not because they could buy more ads than the other guy? Cynics will say that is wishful thinking, but the truth is it's not hard to bring that closer to reality. I'd gladly pay a little more in taxes to end the rampant corruption in our political system.