Barack Obama's $745 Million 2008 Campaign Ended Public Financing

Barack Obama made public financing of presidential campaigns irrelevant in 2008.

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Tom Cole is an Oklahoma Republican representative and member of the House Appropriations Committee

The federal government is heading for bankruptcy unless we make some tough budget cuts quickly. Our national debt stands at a staggering $14 trillion, and the Congressional Budget Office projects it will reach 77 percent of Gross Domestic Product in just 10 years.

[See editorial cartoons about the budget and deficit.]

Yet every four years, the government sponsors an extravagant party and job fair—at taxpayer expense—for a handful of the wealthiest and most powerful Americans. It's called the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, and it uses taxpayer money to subsidize presidential candidates and nominating conventions.

The fund was first authorized in 1971 to limit campaign spending, crack down on corruption by reducing private contributions to candidates, and make it easier for both voters and candidates to participate in presidential elections. Four decades later, the fund's track record respective to each of these goals is, in order: utter failure, irrelevance, and total obsolescence.

Barack Obama's candidacy wasn't just the beginning of the end of public financing. His meteoric fundraising spree rendered the system instantly extinct. Opting out of public financing, despite earlier pledges to the contrary, Obama raised $745 million entirely in private contributions. So much for keeping campaign spending down. Although candidates have been forgoing the public system for primaries since 2000, Obama's record-breaking haul set a new precedent for general elections. The maximum amount available under public financing in 2008 was $126 million—a sum that will seem quaint when Obama raises $1 billion for his next campaign. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Obama.]

Supporters of public financing argue the program is necessary to fight corruption. They might have had a point in 1971—before modern campaign finance laws and modern technology. Today's campaigns operate in an atmosphere of scrutiny and transparency that did not exist in the Watergate era. Individual contributions are strictly regulated, limited, and fully disclosed—easily available to be examined by anyone with access to a computer. With or without public financing, corporate contributions to federal candidates are illegal. Any tenuous connection between public financing and accountability is long gone.

Taxpayers seem to agree that the system is obsolete. Participation in the voluntary checkoff system has declined steadily for decades, reaching a new low of just 7.3 percent in 2010. Even at the height of the program's popularity in 1980, less than one third of taxpayers contributed. Do the fund's proponents really believe that number will ever be reached again? There were no debit cards or websites when public financing began. Voters today can support campaigns much more efficiently by clicking a link or sending a text.

Barriers to participation are at their lowest levels ever for candidates, too. With YouTube and blogs, presidential aspirants can gain traction without spending a dime on prime-time ad buys.

Even if the public financing system were necessary or effective, we can't afford it. Our economic outlook is so precarious that we will have to make painful cuts even to worthwhile programs. The Presidential Election Campaign Fund, on the other hand, does not help feed, house, educate, or provide medical care for a single ordinary American. It does not create jobs, build one mile of road, or promote energy innovation. It is simply an entitlement program for politicians that long ago outlived its questionable usefulness. Let's end the program and use the $617 million in savings to keep programs we actually need.

See the other side of the debate: Read Democracy 21's Fred Wertheimer on why the checkoff system for funding presidential campaigns should not be abolished.

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  • Check out a roundup of editorial cartoons about the budget and deficit.