Taylor Lincoln is Public Citizen's (www.citizen.org) research director for the Congress Watch division which publishes www.WhiteHouseForSale.org.
Last weekend's Yearly Kos presidential candidates' debate was marked by highly publicized exchanges between former Sen. John Edwards and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who touted their pledges to reject campaign contributions from lobbyists, and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who refused to reject such contributions.
Meanwhile, the Democratic hopefuls' endorsements of public funding of elections triggered a standing ovation.
Despite this posturing, all of the candidates have failed to earn the moral high ground they are claiming because they are failing to provide meaningful disclosure of their use of bundlers—people who funnel much more money to candidates than they can legally give from their own pockets.
Although each of the top-tier candidates promised disclosure, none is even matching the transparency standard set in 2004 by masters of secrecy Bush and Cheney—or providing a level of disclosure that would allow the public real insight into the importance of their bundlers.
In late July, Public Citizen released a rebuilt version of our White House for Sale project, which keeps track of presidential campaign bundlers. We identified nearly 1,900 bundlers for the 2008 candidates. But the information we were able to publish was considerably less comprehensive than what we delivered in 2004 on the campaign financiers for Bush as well as Democratic hopefuls John Kerry and Howard Dean.
For example, Bush and Cheney revealed names and states of residence of people who raised at least $100,000 ("Pioneers") and $200,000 ("Rangers") on a prominent area of their campaign Web site. Their fundraising operation was unseemly, but at least it was semi-transparent. Dean and Kerry imitated both Bush and Cheney's fundraising methods and their disclosure practices.
In the 2008 campaign, only one of the six leading candidates (Barack Obama) is providing a list of his bundlers on an easy-to-find section of his campaign Web site. Two candidates (Hillary Clinton and John Edwards) maintain lists on Web pages that are very difficult to find from their main Web sites. The three leading declared Republicans, meanwhile, have so far offered little more than dribs and drabs of information about their fundraisers.
While in 2004, the candidates indicated how much their bundlers raised, only two 2008 aspirants (Obama and Clinton) are yet providing any details on the amounts raised by bundlers.
After we reported that Clinton failed to provide either a link to her list of bundlers or information about how much each raised, her campaign told a reporter that it had provided the information—buried in the fourth paragraph of a staff-written blog item published three months earlier.
Now, that's getting the word out.
It is time for some concrete solutions. For starters, all of the presidential candidates should immediately begin publishing lists of bundlers and indicate how much money each raised within $50,000 ranges. Second, Congress should pass a law requiring candidates to disclose their bundlers, how much they raised and who they raised their money from. While the lobbying and ethics reform bill will get some of this done for lobbyists, corporate executives and hedge fund managers are no less influential in terms of setting the agenda for candidates. All bundling activity should be done in the bright sunshine.
There is nothing to stop candidates who believe in transparency from taking steps to improve this disclosure right now, and we are asking them to do so. This week, Public Citizen sent an open letter to each of the presidential candidates believed to be using bundlers, calling on them to lift the veil of secrecy from their bundling operations.
But the lasting solution is to improve our presidential public funding system so that our White House hopefuls don't have to spend their time groveling to big donors. Enacted in the wake of Watergate, the system worked well for more than two decades, until Bush opted out of the system in 2000 and raised far more money than participants were allowed to spend.
In order to raise his record sums, Bush relied on individuals who would become central figures in some of the biggest scandals of the decade. His cast of Rangers and Pioneers included Enron's Ken Lay, who presided over the biggest bankruptcy in history before he was convicted of fraud; Brent Wilkes, now under indictment for bribing former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif.; and Jack Abramoff, whose eponymous influence-peddling scandal resulted in convictions of two administration officials and left the Republican congressional caucus in ruins.
Aside from these spectacular implosions, Bush's Rangers and Pioneers proceeded to win innumerable policy changes and government contracts that have left an appearance of favoritism, and sometimes an outright stench of corporate inside-dealing.
Bills in the House and Senate would reinvigorate the presidential public funding system by increasing the public match for small donor contributions, increasing spending limits for those who participate in the system and providing a series of escape hatches for candidates who find themselves matched up against heavily funded opponents who opt out of the system. The time has also come to offer a voluntary public funding option for congressional candidates, in addition to modernizing the presidential public funding system.
Public funding of elections is the only viable option that can end the two-tiered representation system plaguing Washington. The choice we have to make is whether we want to pay a few dollars a year to choose our representatives, or let the likes of Ken Lay and Jack Abramoff do it for us.