Is Public Financing for Elections Finished?

Looking for programs to cut, GOP takes aim at public financing for elections.

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House Republicans are pushing to dismantle what's left of federal public financing for presidential elections by offering legislation that would finally eliminate the program established during the post-Watergate reform era.

But as its sponsors admit, the program may die on its own since it's unlikely any of the major presidential candidates will opt for public financing in 2012.

"Contrary to its original intent, the program has not improved the honesty or civility in presidential campaigns. Nor has it been over-flowing with candidates willing to participate," said Mississippi Republican Rep. Gregg Harper, the sponsor of the bill, in a statement from his office.

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The Presidential Election Campaign Fund was established in its current form in 1974, with the goal of reining private money in campaign elections. In exchange for public funds to run their campaigns, candidates accept spending limits.

Taxpayers can choose to divert $3 of their yearly income tax to the fund, though few taxpayers contribute to the fund. In 2008, presidential candidates used $139 million in public funding—less than in previous election years, in part because the winning candidate, then-Sen. Barack Obama, became the first candidate to refuse to use the system for either the general election or the primary, claiming it was outdated and needed to be reformed. So far in this cycle, none of the candidates have opted to use the system, and many political observers doubt that the two party nominees will use it at all in the hopes of raising more money through private donations. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that it would reduce the deficit about $617 million over the next ten years.

Republicans also pushed a similar bill in January, which passed the House but never came to a vote in the Senate. In addition to the presidential financing, Harper's current bill would also eliminate the Election Assistance Commission, which was created in 2002 as a response to the voting problems which plagued the 2000 presidential election. Republicans claim that the commission has already served its purpose to update antiquated voting machines across the nation. The House of Representatives will likely vote on Harper's bill later this week.

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Campaign finance reform advocates have blasted the idea, claiming that in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision which lifted many restrictions on corporate funding in elections, public financing is more important than ever before.

"Presidential candidates are entitled to have the option of running for President on a system based on small donations and public funds as an alternative to becoming obligated to influence-seeking funders," stated a letter signed by 11 campaign finance advocates, including Common Cause and the League of Women Voters.

Twitter: @AlexParkerDC