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House GOP Goes After Last Remaining Public Campaign Financing Law

January 26, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

As part of their deficit cutting campaign, House Republicans are holding a vote today on a bill that would terminate the optional public funding program for presidential candidates and end public funding of party conventions. The bill would wipe out one of the last remaining laws designed to block corporations and special interests from taking total ownership of the federal election process. Yet, like everything else the Republicans have moved through the House so far, it hasn’t had a single committee hearing or mark-up meeting.

The Republicans estimate that the bill would save taxpayers $520 million over the next ten years. Obviously, that’s peanuts. As Public Action Campaign notes, the eight co-sponsors of the bill have taken more than that in earmarks over the past two years. But what really makes it absurd that the Republicans are touting this as a fiscal matter is that the public financing program is currently funded directly through a voluntary $3 payment that taxpayers can choose to include or not include on their tax returns. What the Republicans’ bill really does is eliminate taxpayers’ option to fund a special-interest-free election process. It’s not about saving taxpayers money.

Now, the public funding program is certainly far from perfect. In the past few years, the amount of money available to candidates through the program has become too small compared to how much corporations are pouring into elections these days. As a result, President Obama did not use the system in ‘08, becoming the first general-election candidate to not opt-in since the program was created in the late 70s. With the Citizens United decision in effect, it’s pretty unlikely that any future candidates would choose to use it in its current form. It’s an outdated system, but one that campaign finance experts believe can be made relevant and competitive again by increasing its size and its emphasis on small individual donations.

Yesterday, the Obama Administration put out a statement (PDF) expressing their opposition to the proposal. “Its effect would be to expand the power of corporations and special interests in the Nation’s elections; to force many candidates into an endless cycle of fundraising at the expense of engagement with voters on the issues; and to place a premium on access to large donor or special interest support, narrowing the field of otherwise worthy candidates,” the statement reads. The Administration says they support modernization and repair of the system, noting that many promising proposals in that direction have been made in recent years. Obviously, Obama would veto the bill if it got to his desk, but it’s not expected to get through the Democratic Senate anyways.

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