Public Financing for Presidential Campaigns on the Chopping Block

Republican vote sets stage for partisan wrangling after Obama's address.

ByABC News
January 27, 2011, 1:34 PM

Jan. 27, 2011— -- President Obama made bipartisanship a focal point of his State of the Union address Tuesday, but days later, new bills are setting the stage for partisan fights that could come to a boil in 2012.

A year after the Supreme Court overturned the federal government's decades-old restriction on corporate spending in political campaigns, Republicans are attempting to end the Presidential Election Fund, a move that Democrats charge will only boost the presence of special interest groups.

House Republicans on Wednesday passed a bill to eliminate public financing for presidential campaigns, a program that has been in place for 35 years.

The bill would terminate all taxpayer funding of presidential election campaigns and party conventions "to reduce federal spending and the deficit." The funds that remain would go into the Treasury Department's general fund and would only be used for deficit-reduction purposes.

Under current law, Americans can designate $3 on their income tax filings toward the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. The fund currently collects about $42 million annually, and its balance was $195 million at the end of 2010, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

To qualify for the public funds, presidential candidates and party convention committees have to limit their campaign spending.

The nonpartisan CBO estimated that eliminating the public financing system would reduce direct spending by $617 million in the 2011-2021 period.

The bill faces a bleak future in the Senate. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., introduced the bill Wednesday in the Senate, calling the fund "an outdated, wasteful Washington program" and a "welfare for politicians."

But Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., thus far has no plans to bring the measure to a vote on the floor, setting the stage for more partisan wrangling.

"It sets the stage for McConnell, whose ambitions are to build a solid majority in the Senate, and bring that to fruition in the next Congress," said Thomas E. Mann, a congressional scholar and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "The bottom line is the system isn't now much used. It's not workable. It's outdated. It needs revisions at the very least ... but it still is sort of a marker."

Citing its declining usefulness, Republicans say the measure is part of their overall strategy to cut the deficit where they can.

And whether it sees the light of day, the momentum behind the measure is unlikely to die down and it could, experts say, become another point on the checklist of those who are gearing up for the 2012 elections.