Events of the past week have not been cheery for fans of campaign finance laws.
First, there was the Supreme Court decision saying that the federal McCain-Feingold law's restrictions on outside interest groups running ads knocking or praising candidates in the runup to elections are unconstitutional. Then, there was Barack Obama's record-shattering $32.5 million second-quarter haul.
Both of these stories point out something that had been increasingly obvious anyway -- the federal system of public financing for presidential candidates is dead. This is a system that had worked well for a number of years, limiting what candidates could spend and fully funding the fall campaigns. But Bush and Kerry both opted out of the system in 2004 (as did Howard Dean), and it was already clear that Obama, Clinton and the big spenders on the Republican side would do so this time around.
Which leaves the also-rans. That's what tends to happen with public financing schemes. They don't provide enough money to keep the playing field level for races and candidates that matter the most. That's been true about state-level financing efforts, as well.
Some public finance laws have grown obsolete over time. Some of the 1970s state laws have simply not kept up with campaign inflation, meaning no serious candidate for, say, the Wisconsin Senate will participate in a system that will leave her campaign underfunded.
The current fashionable template is the so-called clean elections model, pioneered in Maine and Arizona and since adopted to some extent in several other states. Under this law, all candidates who do enough local fundraising on their own to show serious intent are provided with enough money to run a decent campaign. The funding changes with each cycle, based on an average of what was spent in the previous cycle.
In theory, this should work pretty well. Candidates are given a reasonable budget and can spend time meeting with voters, rather than lobbyists and other potential donors. In practice, this works a fair amount of the time, but the system falls apart when there's a heavily contested election.
Remember, for instance, that Maine Governor John Baldacci did not run as a "clean" candidate last year. (The number of Maine citizens willing to direct their tax dollars into the campaign fund has been steadily declining -- the same problem that doomed the 1970s round of reform efforts.)
And, any important, close election -- one that could tip the balance of a chamber -- will attract far more money than the clean elections law would allow. It wouldn't necessarily be spent directly by candidates, but by the parties or by outside interest groups -- the type the Supreme Court just said could spend what they want to say whatever they want.