Yesterday, the House voted on strictly partisan lines to eliminate public financing for presidential campaigns and national party conventions, and also abolish the Election Assistance Commission, created in 2002 to prevent another electoral controversy like 2000’s.
Republicans argued that, in an age of austerity, government shouldn’t support a program that has become increasingly irrelevant since the 1990s, when candidates began rejecting primary matching funds. Rep. Gregg Harper of Mississippi explained that the bill “eliminates one government program that virtually no one uses and shuts down an agency that has completed the task it was assigned.”
Democrats have protested that the Election Assistance Commission’s work has been effective, but they have no reason to rue the end of federal presidential-election funding: President Obama himself put an emphatic nail in public financing’s coffin by becoming the first general-election candidate to reject public money and rely entirely on private donations (in which he ended up raising a staggering $750 million). John McCain instead accepted $84 million in public financing, which brought with it very tight restrictions on any other money he wanted to raise or spend, though public financing can be supplemented by PACs and 527 groups.
Most controversially, Candidate Obama promised to rely on public financing before reversing his position. At the time, he claimed he “supports a robust system of public financing of elections,” but that the system was, “as it exists today, broken.”
About the repeal bill, the White House has said the following:
The Administration strongly opposes House passage of H.R. 3463 … [which] would terminate the Nation’s Presidential election public financing system, expanding the power of corporations and special interests in the Nation’s elections. The bill would force many candidates into an endless cycle of fundraising at the expense of engagement with voters on the issues, and would place a premium on access to large donor or special interest support, narrowing the field of otherwise worthy candidates.
Despite these objections to private financing — that it produces endless fundraising cycles and gives too much influence to corporations and special interests — the administration’s own primary and general-election efforts in 2008 were both privately funded, a pattern they seem likely to repeat this election cycle.
Democrats have scrambled to paint the House reform as ideological, but given the prevalence of private financing in both parties, Republicans may well be sincere in trying to cut a bloated and practically obsolete government program. If campaign-finance reform comes increasingly to concern regulation of private financing, not provision of public funding, that should be attributed that as much to President Obama’s actions as to the Republicans’ vote yesterday.
The bill is unlikely to go anywhere in the Senate, though.