Deficit Financing for Candidates

February 23, 1991

The Federal Election Commission estimates there will not be enough money in the Presidential Election Campaign Fund in 1992. This is a fund created in 1974 to provide public financing for presidential candidates. The fund comes from taxpayers earmarking $1 or $2 of their income tax payments for that purpose. In the past, taxpayers have designated enough money to cover the public's share of campaign costs.

In 1988, the cost to taxpayers for presidential candidates was $178 million. It should be less in 1992, but more than the $125 million projected for the fund early that year. The law says money should be set aside in advance for the general election and the remainder divided among primary candidates. That would leave $10-$20 million for primary season. The major party candidates drew $67 million from the fund in the 1988 primaries. So a shortfall is probable -- unless the Treasury, which administers the fund, advances candidates money that is expected to be collected later. The FEC and Common Cause support this approach.

Except for candidates and contributors, who always like some help from their friend the taxpayer, this kind of deficit financing for presidential candidates won't be popular. The overwhelming majority of taxpayers think campaign subsidies are a bad idea, period. More think so every year.

The public's support for public financing can be measured by the percentage of 1040 forms filed each year with $1 or $2 checked off for the presidential campaign fund. This is not an extra dollar or two of taxes, just an earmarking. It costs the filer nothing. Yet the percentage of those checking off has fallen every year since 1980. It used to be consistently above 25 percent. It was 19.9 percent for 1989; 1990 is expected to be lower.

Why has public support declined? Perhaps because the public is learning that this subsidy has supplemented rather than replaced special-interest money. Loopholes in the original 1974 law and subsequent changes in that law have brought the fat cats back into the picture. In 1988, almost as much private money was spent in the presidential campaigns (in constant dollars), as was spent in 1972, the last election without subsidies.

Borrowing money that taxpayers have made clear they are not going to earmark for presidential campaigns is a bad idea. Officials at Treasury should reject it.

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