In 1974, Congress established a new financing system for presidential races, largely paid by the American people. Before 1974, presidential candidates received huge sums of campaign money from big unions, corporations and "fat cat" individual contributors. This money ensured that the candidate would be beholden to his generous benefactors if and when he reached the White House.
The new system set up a fund for financing presidential races by taxpayers voluntarily allocating $1 of their annual income tax. The dollar donation, checked off on their tax return, did not increase their taxes. But it made those candidates who accepted funding from this public account beholden to the people, and not to the big special interests.The Deseret News of March 12 noted in an editorial that the percentage of taxpayers allocating money to this fund has fallen and alleged that the fund will run out of money "by 1996 at the latest." Contributions have indeed decreased since their peak in 1981 but last year still brought in $32.5 million, certainly an indication of enormous support.
It is true that the Federal Election Commission (FEC) has reported that there may be insufficient funds to provide full funding for the 1991 presidential primary candidates. There will be $27 million in the fund by next Dec. 31, probably not enough for full allocations to primary candidates in early 1992 when they need it most. The FEC says that full funding will be available, however, for the general election.
The issue is whether the Treasury Department includes the anticipated checkoff funds to come in during 1992 in estimating the funds available for presidential primary candidates.
While any shortage of funds would be partly due to a lower level of participation in the dollar checkoff during the 1980s, the principal reason for a shortfall is that the amount of money available for candidates has been indexed to inflation since 1975 and therefore has increased substantially, while the amount of incoming funds was not indexed and has remained at the same level since 1975. If the checkoff amount had also been indexed, there would be a substantial surplus today.
The New York Times, in an editorial on Feb. 21, suggested that "instead of basing allocations on the money on hand by Dec. 31, as Treasury proposes, it should also count the $30 million or so to come in from 1991 returns in the spring of 1992. That would be ample for 1992, allowing time for further fixes by 1996."
Common Cause has been supporting legislation in Congress to address the long-term problem by both increasing and indexing the checkoff. With increased costs of campaigns, the checkoff should not remain at $1 but should be adjusted for inflation to $2.50 or $3, with provision for future indexing.
The Deseret News editorial also opposes any extension of public financing to congressional election campaigns, as proposed in bills recently introduced in Congress. "Let's not expand election financing spending at a time when fewer people seem willing to pay for what already exists," the editorial advises.
The problem, Common Cause would argue, is one of education and information. Not enough of our citizens realize what a good investment their $1 checkoff actually is. Some people object, on principle, to funding political campaigns. Such people have their heads in the sand if they think they are not already funding them to the extent of millions or even billions of dollars.
When big special interests make huge contributions to congressional campaigns, those donors get special considerations in the lawmaking process and we all pay.
As an example, public funding might have prevented the tax bill of $2,500 every American must pay because of the $300 billion bailout of the mismanaged and often corrupt savings and loans. The $1 checkoff is an investment in good government that can't fail to provide immense dividends.
Further, any taxpayer who objects to the $1 checkoff because that dollar may not go to his or her own favorite candidate is not reasoning correctly. Actually, that tax dollar is the only part of their taxes that citizens can have any say about at all.
Federal taxes go to build bridges in Ohio, roads in Alabama or parks in Wyoming. But the $1 checked off for public campaign financing goes directly into a fund that is divided equally among candidates who qualify according to the law.
It makes elected officials accountable to the people rather than to the big special interests. Each citizen can still give as much as the law allows to a favorite candidate, but the $1 contributed to public financing is a united effort to put control of campaigns and lawmaking back in the hands of the people.
As the Deseret News points out, many other campaign reforms would help and are necessary. Common Cause is working hard at both national and state levels to bring these about.
But public financing of both presidential and congressional campaigns at the national level is the most effective and democratic way to go.
(Patricia Brim has served on the governing board of Utah Common Cause since 1975.)