Commission on Presidential Debates

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The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) is a "private, nonprofit corporation -- [which] represents the interests of the Republican and Democratic parties." The Commission was established in 1987 following the 1986 agreement by the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee "to take over the presidential debates." Previously, "from 1976 to 1984, the presidential debates were sponsored by the League of Women Voters." The Commission [1]

The CPD has come under attack from democracy advocates, third parties and independent candidates for the presidency. They claim the CPD is little more than a front for the two dominant parties that allows them to maintain control over debate participants, formats, and moderators. This absolute control over the form also gives them indirect control over the range of issues that may be discussed, excluding many of the most critical issues on which there is either bi-partisan agreement or disinterest in discussion. All the while, the dominant parties maintain plausible deniability for the anti-democratic practices via the CPD.

Criticisms of the CPD

The commission describes itself as nonpartisan, but it is actually bipartisan: its co-chairmen are Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk, former chairmen of the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively. Questions concerning third-party participation and debate formats are ultimately resolved behind closed doors among Republican and Democratic negotiators. The commission, posing as an independent sponsor, then enforces these rules, shielding the major-party candidates from public criticism.

In 1996, Bob Dole and President Bill Clinton maneuvered to keep Ross Perot from the presidential debates, even though Mr. Perot had received 19% of the popular vote after being allowed into the 1992 debates, posessed almost $30 million in federal matching funds, and a substantial majority of likely voters wanted him included.

Open Debates points out that "most board members of the CPD have close ties to multinational corporations. Five are partners of corporate law firms, and collectively, the directors serve on the boards of more than 30 companies, ranging from gambling to pharmaceutical to agricultural to insurance companies.

According to Open Debates, Fahrenkopf and Kirk still control the CPD. They don't just profit from corporate America as partners of corporate law firms and directors of corporations. They are also registered lobbyists for transnational corporations. Kirk has collected $120,000 for lobbying on behalf of Hoechst Marion Roussel, a German pharmaceutical company.

"As president of the American Gaming Association (AGA), Frank Fahrenkopf is the lead advocate for the nation's $54 billion gambling industry. He earns $800,000 a year lobbying on behalf of 18 corporations directly involved in the hotel/casino industry -- ITT, Hilton -- as well as most of the major investment banking firms -- Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch.

The debates are now primarily funded through corporate contributions. Phillip Morris was a sponsor in 1992 and 1996. Anheuser-Busch sponsored debates in its hometown of St. Louis in 1992 and 2000.

"When the League of Women Voters ran the debates, things were a bit different. 'One of the big differences between us and the commission was that the commission could easily raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions,' Nancy Neuman, former president of the League of Women Voters told Open Debates. 'They did it very quickly in 1988. Even though I would go to some corporations, I would be lucky to get $5,000. Why? Because under the commission's sponsorship, this is another soft money deal. It is a way to show your support for the parties because, of course, it is a bipartisan commission and a bipartisan contribution. There was nothing in it for corporations when they made a contribution to the League. Not a quid pro quo. That's not the case with the commission.'"

In 2000, initiated calls to cease lobbying the CPD to "open the debates" and, instead, build a new entity called the Citizens' Debate Commission to replace the CPD with a truly nonpartisan organization that would serve democracy, not merely the two dominant parties. The Citizens' Debate Commission [2] became reality in 2004, with a board representing a broad spectrum of prominent civic leaders and organizations.

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