Amid a presidential campaign cycle in which candidates are expected to raise more than $1 billion, the House of Representatives voted Thursday to end the comparatively meager taxpayer funding for presidential campaigns.
The Republican-sponsored bill, which passed 235-190 strictly down party lines, transfers the $200 million currently sitting in the presidential fund back to the Treasury to help bring down the deficit. The bill also eliminated the Election Assistance Commission, which was established after the 2000 election to promote proper election administration, a move that would save about $16.3 million annually.
Every voting Democrat voted against the bill. Rep. Walter Jones, R-NC, was the only voting Republican to oppose the bill. It is highly unlikely that the Democrat-controlled Senate will take up the measure.
For the past 35 years, every major party nominee – with the exception of Barack Obama – has funded his or her general election campaign using the public money, with the caveat that they do not raise any private funds after accepting the millions in tax dollars.
But as campaign spending skyrockets, the roughly $90 million that candidates could receive from taxpayers in 2012 would be merely a “drop in the bucket,” said Ray La Raja, an associate political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“The [public funds] are only relevant if you don’t want to win the presidency,” La Raja said. “It’s just not enough money.”
For example, in the 2008 general election, GOP nominee John McCain took the $84 million in public funds. Obama, who opted out of the taxpayer money, went on to raise about $350 million for the general election.
“When Obama said, ‘Forget it, I’m not taking the public funds,’ all bets were off,” La Raja said. “It was a disaster for McCain. He was so constrained because he only had $85 million to work with.”
This is exactly why neither Obama nor the eventual Republican nominee is expected to take the public money this election cycle.
“If you don’t take the public money, it’s just game on,” said Michael Toner, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. “You can raise as much as you like and spend as much as you want. All these rules kick in if you take public money.”
But Democrats argue that the public money helps decrease the influence of special interests and are unlikely to bring up the bill in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
“The public is kind of confounded on this,” La Raja said. “They are not sure how to solve the problem. They don’t want to give candidates public money but they don’t want to have politicians take donations from private interests.”
None of the Republican candidates have opted for public primary matching funds, which match private donations with as much as $250 of public money per individual.
If they accept the funds, the amount they can spend in the primary is capped at $44.2 million. To put that in perspective, Obama spent about 10 times that much to defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary.
Obama did not accept taxpayer funds in the primary election or the general election, making him the first candidate to win the White House without public money since the taxpayer funding program was established in 1976.
It was created in response to the Watergate scandal as a way to limit corruption or the appearance of corruption in presidential elections.
The 2012 election cycle is expected to be the most expensive in American history. The Obama campaign has said it aims to raise at least $1 billion, up from the nearly $800 billion it raised in 2008.
“We definitely have seen a geometric increase in presidential campaign fundraising in the last 10 years,” Toner said. “It’s due to the extraordinary costs of reaching a nation as broad and diverse as America.”
But while $1 billion may sound like a lot for TV ads and phone banks, it pales compared to the advertising dollars spent to promote products in the private sector.
“We spend $1 billion to advertise toothpaste,” La Raja said. “What’s a billion to advertise for the most important election in this country, if not the world?”