Friday, October 21, 2005

The New York Times

Hiding Behind Katrina

It takes gall to use Hurricane Katrina as cover to undermine the democratic process, but that's what conservative ideologues are attempting in the House. Among their budget-cutting proposals - being sold as "tough choices" for America to pay for the Gulf Coast recovery - is a startling plan to kill public financing in the presidential election system.

That program, financed by $3 checkoffs volunteered by taxpayers on their returns, has been a bulwark of presidential elections. It was enacted about 30 years ago, after the Watergate scandal exposed the big-money bagmen corrupting the heart of the political process. It makes politics more competitive for underdogs, more involving for the public and less reliant on floods of special-interest campaign money.

Congress should indeed turn its attention to the program - not to end it, but to repair its outdated limits. The primary calendar has become so front-loaded that the candidates with the strongest sources of private donations are now choosing to skip the limitations of public financing so they can spend early and furiously, leaving other challengers at a disadvantage.

The primary subsidy formula needs to be made more realistic to level the field, and the checkoff amount should be increased. Candidates should not be allowed to have it both ways by feeding on private money in the primaries, then switching to public money in the general election, as President Bush and Senator John Kerry did last year.

Under the current system, participating candidates in the primaries receive matching funds for the first $250 of each private contribution. This one-to-one formula should be increased to two-to-one matching or more as a way to invite more of the small donations that began showing up impressively last year from Internet users.

Sponsors of the House proposal must know they are wrong because they are trying to tuck the change into a budget bill without a public hearing and debate. If they want budget cuts, they should focus on government waste, not open elections.