As part of their larger effort to dramatically reduce spending in all corners of the federal budget, House Republicans this week successfully took first aim at the public financing of Presidential elections, ending a Federal Election Commission program that has subsidized the campaigns of numerous White House wannabes since 1976.
“Eliminating this program would save taxpayers $617 million over 10 years, and would require candidates and political parties to rely on private contributions rather than tax dollars,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) in a statement. “In times when government has no choice but to do more with less, voting to end the Presidential Election Campaign Fund should be a no-brainer.”
House Resolution 359 – “To reduce Federal spending and the deficit by terminating taxpayer financing of presidential election campaigns and party conventions” – passed the House by a 239 – 160 vote. The legislation, which now moves to the Senate, forces the Internal Revenue Code to terminate the taxpayer option which designates $3 of personal income tax liability for presidential campaign financing and eliminates both the Presidential Election Campaign Fund and the Presidential Primary Matching Payment Account.
“Let’s remember what we’re talking about here,” argued Rep. Chris Van-Hollen (D-MD) in an impassioned plea on the House floor. “The current presidential financing system that this bill would eliminate arose from public outrage in the post-Watergate period. Rather than presidential candidates trafficking in secret slush funds, our nation decided that our democracy would be better served by a system of public disclosure, contribution limits, and emphasis on smaller dollar contributions, matched by the presidential financing fund.”
Ironically, the measure calls for the elimination of a program which was created under President Gerald Ford, a Republican – following the humiliation of former President Richard Nixon, another Republican directly responsible for what is considered the most notorious political scandal in American history.
The fund has become a popular alternative for Presidential candidates on both sides of the partisan aisle seeking a federal matching boost to their national campaign efforts. Major African American Presidential candidates such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jr. and the Rev. Al Sharpton participated heavily in the program during Democratic presidential bids. Former President Ronald Reagan, a Republican icon, also participated in the program by taking federal matching funds. However, since 1996, many candidates began opting out of the program during the primary, such as GOP candidate Steve Forbes and former President George W. Bush in 2000. Democrats John Kerry and Howard Dean also opted out of the program during the primary in 2004.
However, it was 2008 candidate Barack Obama who was the first Presidential candidate since the inception of the program to opt out of federal matching funds during the general election. It was a move widely considered a blow to the public financing system and a sign of the increasingly expensive, multi-billion dollar nature of Presidential campaigns. While 2008 GOP nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a staunch advocate of campaign finance reform, accused Obama of recanting on a promise not to pull out of the option, the Democratic nominee did not want to forgo his massive fundraising advantage at the time by accepting the limits imposed by participation in the matching fund program.
The White House reaction to the move by Republicans was swift, arguing that the measure would “force many candidates into an endless cycle of fundraising at the expense of engagement with voters on the issues.”
“After a year in which the Citizens United decision rolled back a century of law to allow corporate interests to spend vast sums in the Nation’s elections and to do so without disclosing the true interests behind them, this is not the time to further empower the special interests or to obstruct the work of reform,” said the White House in a statement issued earlier in the week.
But, unlike the fight over the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the Obama Administration did not say whether or not it would veto the legislation if it were to pass through the Senate.
Setting the stage for a heated and nasty battle over the budget, Republicans have argued that the program is another example of government waste since less than 10% of American taxpayers contribute to it. The GOP eagerly points to Obama’s own opt-out from the program as an example that the initiative is becoming obsolete and outdated.
Urging Congress not to pass H.R. 359, Democracy21 President Fred Wertheimer fears the elimination of the public financing system “would tell citizens that their small donations will not matter because big money will overwhelm the presidential campaigns.”
“It would represent the first step in an effort by Republican opponents of campaign finance laws to completely unravel our system of anti-corruption campaign finance laws,” said Wertheimer. “Which, in turn, would return us to the influence-money corruption days that were the hallmark of the pre-Watergate period.”