Holmes: Public Funding of Presidential Campaigns Has Failed
- Sep. 3, 2012
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The Presidential Election Campaign Fund (PECF), which contains the money set aside for public funding of presidential campaigns, was initially created in response to the electoral corruption of the Nixon campaigns revealed by the Watergate Scandal. The idea: Public funding of presidential candidates would limit the corrupting influence of large donations from wealthy individuals, corporations and outside groups.
Through various amendments over the last four decades, public financing — regulated by the Federal Election Commission and maintained by the U.S. Treasury — has been available to presidential candidates for primary and general elections, as well as the nominating conventions of the two major parties. (Third party conventions and nominees must earn five percent in the previous cycle in order to qualify.)
According to the Boston Globe, roughly 11 candidates each presidential cycle – and 15 in two of them – collected primary campaign funds in the federal government, until 2008. (See the data for yourself.)
The first signs of erosion in the system began in the 1996 Republican presidential primaries, as self-funded candidate Steve Forbes gave 1996 GOP nominee Bob Dole more trouble than expected with his massive advertising budget. And in 2000 George W. Bush chose not to take the public funds at all, so as to avoid spending limits and restrictions on candidates who took public funding.
Still, the majority of candidates used the public primary funds, as well as the major party nominees in the general election.
Then came 2008, when Barack Obama became the first of the two-party nominees to forego the public funding – and the spending limitations that come with them – to raise and spend $750 million on his own, dramatically outpacing the $84.1 million John McCain’s failed campaign could spend under the limits.
This year, only third party candidates took the matching funds available (up to $250 per individual contribution at a minimum of $100,000) to candidates competing for his/her party’s nomination. Neither President Obama nor Governor Mitt Romney will take the funds. In light of the money raised by both candidates thus far, the $91.2 million in taxpayer money either candidate could have taken and spent for the general election seems paltry.
The significance of Super PACs and 501(c)(4) groups frame this failure. Parallel to the rise of such outside groups and the sudden refusal of candidates to take public funds has been a precipitous drop in taxpayers who are contributing to the system.
According to the IRS, the percentage of taxpayers checking a box on 1040 income tax returns to contribute $3 to the PECF have decreased from 20 to 30 percent in the 1970s and 1980s to a low of 6.6 percent in 2010.
Can the system be saved? Should it be saved?
In recent sessions, House and Senate Republicans have authored and attempted to pass legislation to eliminate the commission, putting the money toward paying back the national debt. (As of last December, only about $200 million was in the fund.)
House Democrats David Price of North Carolina and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland proposed a plan in January to try to modernize the system, increasing spending limits (eliminating them in general elections) and matching funds, allowing taxpayers to contribute $10 instead of $3, but limiting individual contributions, so as to even the donor playing field.
Meanwhile, the White House wants to keep the system in place, but has neither supported the Price-Hollen plan, nor offered one of its own.
President Obama chooses to play outside the public framework. Republican lawmakers and the public seem to have lost faith in the notion of public funding. Outside groups have massive legal authority to influence elections. Clearly, the system is dead – except in contributing to conventions.
And as long as each side uses these ad hoc rules to their advantage, nothing will change. Back to square one. 1974.
Correction: This article originally stated that Buddy Roemer was the only candidate to accept matching funds. Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party have also accepted these funds.