Failed Legal and Legislative RemediesSeveral members of Congress have proposed legislation to rectify the presidential debate process. On February 4, 1991, Rep. Tim Penny introduced the Democracy in Presidential Debates Act, which requires debate sponsors to invite any candidate to participate who is on at least 40 state ballots and has raised $500,000 or received public financing. On July 18, 2000, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. proposed lowering the criteria for third-party inclusion from 15 to five percent in the polls. These and other pieces of legislation attempting to reform the debate process were overwhelmingly defeated.
In 1998, Lawrence Noble, then General Counsel of the FEC, released a powerful 37-page report (6.6MB zipped PDF) which claimed that there was "reason to believe" that corporate donations to the CPD were illegal contributions to major party candidates. Noble wrote that the "CPD's major purpose may be to facilitate the election of either of the major party's candidates for president." Noble proposed a thorough investigation to determine exactly what took place between Bill Clinton, Bob Dole and the CPD that resulted in Perot's exclusion from the 1996 presidential debates. However, when Noble submitted his report, the FEC commissioners voted unanimously to override his recommendation.
The FEC is governed by three Democrats and three Republicans, who have a shared interest in maintaining major party control over the debates. Lawrence Noble explained, "The commissioners just didn't see anyway that they wanted to seriously challenge what the debate commission was doing. Their main focus was making sure that the Republican candidate and the Democratic candidate were treated equally and could negotiate what they wanted out of the debate regulations."
Most popular third party candidates, including Ross Perot and Ralph Nader, have filed lawsuits against the CPD for violating FEC regulations. Although sympathetic with third-party complaints, judges have consistently ruled in favor of the CPD, primarily because the courts must defer to the FEC on election matters that are supposed to be the agency's expertise. "The decision is regrettable with respect to democracy - certainly it does not reflect the opinion of the American people," said District Court Judge Thomas Hogan of his own ruling, which rejected Perot's claims.