House Votes to End Public Financing for Campaigns

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House Republicans delivered a blow to the public financing system Wednesday, voting 239-160 to end federal support for presidential elections. The fund, created in 1976, was established to give presidential contenders a leg up in campaigning, but with one caveat--the money is theirs for the taking as long as they shun any outside contributions. The Senate isn't likely to follow the House's lead, but the vote has kicked off debate nonetheless.

Opponents such as Sen. Mitch McConnell and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor deride the program as "welfare for politicians" or "an example of unnecessary government waste." Further, opponents say the low-participation rate warrants the program's demise, since the IRS says only 8.7 percent of taxpayers give to the fund, compare to 28.7 percent in 31 years ago. "This is money that won't educate one American. It won't feed one American. It won't defend the country. It won't build one mile of interstate highway," Rep. Tom Cole is quoted as saying by USAToday's Fredreka Schouten. "If you eliminate this program, the average American is not going to miss it."

However, backers say the Republicans need to slow down and that the numbers are misleading. MotherJones's Kevin Drum points out, for example, that 2008 was the first time presidential candidates opted not to use public financing.

Fund supporters also concede that there are inherent problems with the system, such as its failure to keep up with the financial demands that come with deciding to run. USAToday's Schouten points out that Obama’s camp raised $745 million to land his seat in the Oval Office. If he’d stuck with public financing, he’d of been out of funds when he hit the $84.1 million limit.

Yet supporters also make the case that the campaign fund is a source of election transparency: since the money comes from voters, it is all traceable and it’s clear to whom candidates are accountable. Without it, supporters worry that the safeguard which was created in response to Nixon’s shady, untraceable slush fund accounts will become the accepted norm for political dealings.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen put it this way:

Let’s remember what we’re talking about here. 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.

The Daily Kos's Jared Lewison dismissed Republican claims that the move to eliminate the election fund was part of an effort to clean up government.

I'd submit that if the GOP were really interested in cleaning up government, spending more on public financing -- including extending it to Congressional elections -- would actually save money for a simple reason: it would reduce the power of lobbyists to extract special deals, loopholes, and other giveaways in exchange for campaign cash.

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