This week, the House is scheduled to consider repealing public financing of presidential elections. The bill, sponsored by Tom Cole, R-Okla., correctly puts an end to taxpayer-funded subsidies given to some presidential candidates and political party conventions. The presidential public financing system is a fossil of the 1970s, and the sort of cumbersome regime that only an inside-the-beltway policy wonk could love. For example, to qualify for primary funding, you must raise more than $5,000 in 20 states (but only the first $250 per individual contributor counts).
Back in the 1970s, this may have signaled a broad base of presidential-level support; but today even some mayoral candidates do that in a day, probably even before lunch. Once deemed "eligible" by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), you must agree to both national and separate state-by-state spending limits. You also must agree to a "voluntary" audit by the FEC (past audits have included fascinating topics such as whether running television ads in Boston, Massachusetts, counts against New Hampshire spending limits).
The program has become its own distracting political sideshow. For example, when Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., opted out of the "voluntary" program, the FEC was unsure what to do. When President Obama just said no, he was criticized (but it was an easy choice in hindsight: run for president with $745 million or limit the effort to a government grant that is a mere fraction of that). And for a system that was intended to "level the playing field," it now has the opposite effect: candidates competing head-to-head subject to two entirely different sets of rules.
Moreover, current public financing has outlived its usefulness in combating corruption. In theory, by freeing candidates from the burdens of seeking individual contributions, they would not be beholden to financial supporters. But practically speaking, as Obama raised $745 million, does anyone really think he is beholden to any one contributor? Of course not.
Repeal of the current program is not a partisan issue. Obama campaigned on reforming it, and even professional "reformers" agree it does not work.
Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute has said it is "broken," and Fred Wertheimer, the great-grandfather of the "reform" lobby, agreed that it is in a state of crisis (to be fair, he advocates "fixing" the current regime, which amounts to pouring good money after bad). Years ago, a bipartisan pair of FEC commissioners (Democrat Scott Thomas and Republican Michael Toner) warned that the program would become irrelevant by 2008, and offered a bipartisan fix that went nowhere.
Thus, any opposition to this week's vote or griping about procedure must be seen for what it is: a partisan effort to maintain a failed status quo.
And that status quo is expensive. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., estimates that ending the program will save taxpayers $520 million over the next ten years. This understates the total cost, as it does not include all the government man-hours spent administering the clunky program, with its detailed approvals and audits, nor does it factor in the cost borne by the campaigns themselves to comply with all the random restraints.
Moreover, all the suggested "fixes" to make the program "work" require significantly more taxpayer cash (some suggest almost tripling the funding), at a time when its support is at an all-time low (less than 10 percent of taxpayers agree to the $3 tax check-off to fund the program).
Plus, its funding is already in a perpetual state of "short fall" - eligible candidates routinely have to wait for their "entitlement" while the fund gets replenished. Sometimes, the funding is not provided until long after a campaign is over.
And what does all this money get the taxpayers? Not much, especially since all major candidates over the past decade have declined taxpayer money to varying degrees. But as the cost of running a modern, competitive campaign far exceeds the government grant, the program has instead become a haven for the proverbial also-rans, the single-issue candidates, and those on the political C-list who wish to take a taxpayer-funded book tour disguised as a political campaign.
Certainly, such candidates can add to the debate. But is it really the responsibility of the taxpayers to fund their speech, especially if they do not agree with it? What was once thought of as a way to "level the playing field" has morphed into a perversion of Darwin's theory: survival of the lowest common denominator.
Taxpayers deserve better.
Don McGahn is currently a member of the Federal Election Commission, and served as chairman in 2008.