Public financing of presidential campaigns is on life support, and it’s time to pull the plug.
This week, Senator Jeff Flake issued his latest list of wasteful federal spending, which noted that $1 million in taxpayer money went to a long-shot presidential campaign that most Americans have already forgotten.
You may have noticed that check box on your income-tax return, inviting you to direct $3 of your federal tax bill to a government-managed fund that matches the money raised by presidential candidates who meet certain criteria and accept spending limits. Checking the box has no effect on the amount of taxes owed, but the program is not popular: just 6 percent of taxpayers opted in in 2013.
That government fund isn’t running out of money, though, because most serious candidates forego matching funds, calculating that they can raise more without the spending limits. This wasn’t always the case; if you hate the idea of taxpayer money being spent on presidential campaigns, you can thank Barack Obama, a self-proclaimed supporter of public financing, for inadvertently making it look like a loser’s bet.
From 1976 until 2008, most major-party candidates participated in the program; in 2008, Barack Obama became the first major candidate to reject public funding in the general election, calling his huge network of donors a “parallel public-financing system.” Obama went on to outspend opponent John McCain, who took the matching funds, four to one, and win the election going away.
In 2016, primary candidates were eligible for a maximum payment of $24 million from the campaign fund, but had to agree to limit total expenditures to less than $58 million. If a major-party candidate chose to accept public funds in the general election in 2016, the total payment from the FEC would have been $96 million. That sum is chump change in a world where Hillary Clinton’s campaign spent $576 million.
So no serious major-party candidate would agree to this sort of arrangement. But former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley was not a serious candidate; he amounted to an asterisk in the story of the 2016 Democratic primary. And he figured public matching funds would be a good deal for his cash-strapped campaign.
Since Obama’s 2008 decision, candidates of both parties have “voted with their feet”; no one wants public financing badly enough to accept the risk of defeat.
On January 20, 2016, the FEC sent O’Malley for President a check for $846,365.09. On February 1, O’Malley suspended his campaign after a dismal showing in the Iowa caucuses. By year’s end, the FEC had given his short-lived campaign a bit more than $1 million. The campaign went on to spend $343,638.92 in 2016, according to FEC data — mostly settling bills for accounting, legal, printing, and consulting expenses. The good news is that O’Malley didn’t stiff his vendors. The bad news is your tax dollars helped settle the books.
Public financing is a bad deal for a serious presidential campaign. But if you’re a D-list candidate who wants to raise his profile in the eyes of those handing out book deals and cable-news shows, it’s a terrific deal. If you can raise $100,000 by collecting $5,000 in 20 different states, you’re eligible for matching funds, up to $250 for every individual donor.
That doesn’t trouble public-financing advocates, who argue that the problem with the system is that the spending caps and the value of the matching funds have to be dramatically raised. In the last Congress, several Democrats introduced legislation to increase the current voluntary income tax “check off” amount from $3 to $20 per individual, increase the taxpayer matching to $6 for every $1 raised, and eliminate spending limits on participating candidates. In other words, give more taxpayer money to candidates with fewer restrictions.
Enough. Since Obama’s 2008 decision, candidates of both parties have “voted with their feet”; no one wants public financing badly enough to accept the risk of defeat. In 2014, Congress passed and Obama signed legislation to end the public funding of party presidential conventions, removing one major way that taxpayer dollars supported partisan activities. It’s time to do the same for campaigns.