WASHINGTON – The House on Thursday passed a bill to end the public financing of presidential campaigns. It would dismantle a system set up after the Watergate scandal of the 1970s that has been overshadowed in recent years by the huge sums of private money pouring into elections.
The bill would remove from income tax forms the check-off box where taxpayers can voluntarily steer $3 into a fund for presidential primaries and general elections. The Republican-backed measure passed 235-190 on a nearly party-line vote.
It now goes to the Senate, where the Democratic majority is unlikely to take it up.
President Barack Obama eschewed public funds when he was running for president, but the White House opposed the bill. A White House statement said the legislation would expand the power of special interests in elections and "force many candidates into an endless cycle of fundraising at the expense of engagement with voters in the issues."
The measure also would eliminate an election oversight agency created after the disputed 2000 presidential vote.
The sponsor of the bill, Republican Gregg Harper of Mississippi, said it was time to terminate a program largely ignored by taxpayers and candidates, as well as the Election Assistance Commission, which he called obsolete. The legislation, he said, "eliminates one government program that virtually no one uses and shuts down an agency that has completed the task it was assigned."
It would transfer any leftover money from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund and the Presidential Primary Matching Payment Account to the Treasury for deficit reduction. The funds currently hold about $200 million.
Rep. Robert Brady of Pennsylvania, top Democrat on the House Administration Committee, said public financing and the commission were established to "restore accountability to Washington and ensure that people are heard. All this bill will do is weaken further what little faith the American electorate have left."
Public financing, which officially started in 1976, has been on the decline in recent years because of public disinterest and the massive infusion of private money into campaigns. The proportion of taxpayers directing a part of their tax payment into the funds dropped from 20 percent in 1988 to 7.4 percent in 2008, the last presidential election year. The check-off amount was increased from $1 to $3 in 1993.
Obama became the first presidential candidate in a general election to decline public financing; candidates who take it must accept restrictions on raising private money. Obama was able to raise nearly $750 million, multiple times what he would have received from federal assistance.
Because of that, the Federal Election Commission says public funding dropped from nearly $240 million in 2000 to $139 million in 2008. This year, no candidate has asked for primary matching funds.
"It was destroyed three years ago by then-candidate Obama," Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Pa., said of public financing. "We might as well not spend any more taxpayer funds on it. May it rest in peace."
The Obama administration has argued that the system should be fixed rather than dismantled, but Democratic-led efforts to strengthen public financing have made little headway.
Groups seeking to improve the election system, including Common Cause, Democracy 21, Public Citizen and the League of Women Voters, urged the defeat of the Harper legislation, saying public financing has become even more important after the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision that eased restrictions on corporate spending in political campaigns.
"The presidential public financing system should be repaired, not repealed. The Election Administration Commission should be strengthened, not terminated," the groups wrote to lawmakers.
Harper argues that the commission has outlived its usefulness, having completed its primary mission of overseeing the distribution of some $3 billion to states to update voting equipment and voter registration systems. He says the commission spends more than half its budget on administrative costs, and its remaining duties can be shifted to the FEC.
The election commission says it continues to test and certify voting equipment, reducing duplication and saving local election officials time and money. It also provides training and data to election officials.
The legislation would also end federal assistance for the two parties' presidential conventions. The FEC says both parties have already received initial payments of almost $18 million from the Treasury for planning and conducting their 2012 nominating conventions.
The House last January passed a bill that would have eliminated public financing for presidential elections, but it died in the Senate. The House in June took up a Harper bill aimed specifically at getting rid of the EAC, but it fell short of getting the two-thirds majority under a special procedure.