Signature reforms of the Watergate era, a public financing system that has played a key role in underwriting presidential campaigns and conventions for the last 36 years.
Though the bill faces an uphill climb in the Senate, its passage was a signal of how much attitudes toward money in politics have shifted in recent years, particularly after last year’s Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that opened the door to unlimited corporate and union spending on campaigns.
Even Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who has been the Senate’s most impassioned advocate for limiting the influence of money on politics, signaled a distinct lack of enthusiasm for fighting to maintain the public finance system.
“It’s become an irrelevance,” he said in an interview with National Journal Daily. “No major candidate in their right mind would ever again take public financing. Why in the world should they if they’re outspent as I was two-, three-, four- to-one?”
McCain was twice victimized by presidential opponents who bypassed the public finance system so they could avoid federal campaign spending limits—and swamp him with privately raised funds. It happened first during his 2000 GOP primary fight with future president George W. Bush and again in his 2008 general election fight with President Obama.
The 239-160 House vote divided mostly along party lines. GOP lawmakers linked the elimination of the program, funded by people who earmark $3 of their taxes when filing returns, to the party’s broader effort to reduce government spending to 2008 levels. The Congressional Budget Office reported that eliminating the check-off would save $617 million during the next decade.
Choosing this program was the “easiest, no-brainer thing to cut,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said after the vote, because voters and candidates alike have begun abandoning it. Taxpayer participation in the program had dropped from 28.7 percent in 1980 to 7.3 percent in 2009, he said, and Obama himself was the first presidential candidate in a general election to opt out of it during his 2008 campaign. Other recent presidential candidates, including former president George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the 2004 Democratic nominee, bypassed public financing in the primaries.
“Outdated programs like the Presidential Election Campaign Fund are exactly what the American people had in mind when they voted overwhelmingly to end wasteful Washington spending,” Cole said. “This is a program that doesn’t help feed or educate a single American, doesn’t build one mile of road and doesn’t keep us safe.”
Candidates can raise plenty of private funds, he argued, especially with the Internet making it easy to reach out to smaller-dollar donors—as Obama did.
Democrats contended that eliminating public financing would give special interests even more influence over politicians. The public wants to elect lawmakers based on the quality of their ideas, argued Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., not on the ability to raise money.
“What they don’t want is campaigns decided by how much secret money flows into an election from secret outside groups,” said the former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman on the House floor. “And they will no longer tolerate those politicians turning around and saying you haven’t got the right to know who’s paying for those campaigns.”
The bill faces an uncertain future in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and the president has also said he opposes it. But it did receive strong support from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
“The American people have spoken and the verdict is clear,” he said. “They’d rather reduce the deficit than pay for attack ads and robo-calls. In a time of exploding deficits and record debt, the last thing the American people want right now is to provide what amounts to welfare for politicians.”
The public-finance system was created in the wake of the Watergate scandal that forced President Richard Nixon to resign and was designed to curb the influence of money in politics.
Even as they defended it, Democrats conceded the system is broken. It simply doesn’t give candidates enough money to compete against privately funded candidates, campaign advocates say.
“Campaigns have changed tremendously in the 30 years since the public financing law was drafted,” said Bob Edgar, a former Democratic House member from Pennsylvania who is now president of Common Cause, “and the law should change as well. But the idea behind public financing, to reduce the influence of big-money contributors in the Oval Office and to allow presidential candidates to devote themselves to a discussion of issues rather than the pursuit of campaign contributions, remains sound.”
This article appears in the January 27, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.