A year ago I wrote in this section that I was not going to chec off a dollar for the Presidential Election Campaign Fund on my 1040 income-tax form. I noted that I was going with the flow, as I will again next week. The number of taxpayers who checked off has been going down every year since 1980. The fund was established in 1974.
I looked ahead to 1996, when I predicted there would not be enough money in the fund to give presidential candidates the money they were "entitled to" and said it might be a good idea to see what would happen if the fund ran short.
(Checking off a dollar to the fund does not increase one's tax liability. The fund draws on the general treasury. Not checking off limits the amount in the fund.)
It now appears the fund is going to run short not in 1996 but in 1992. The percentage of taxpayers who checked off went down again last year and is expected to dip further this year, according to Internal Revenue Service estimates.
What is going to happen? That is yet to be determined. Among the ideas making the rounds in Washington are these:
* Borrow money to make sure the candidates get all they qualify for, then pay it back with later 1040 check-offs.
* Double the amount taxpayers can earmark for the fund.
* Supplement the earmarked funds with appropriated funds.
* Stop limiting candidates to earmarked funds and appropriate the full cost of the campaign, whatever it is.
I cannot imagine ideas less connected to public opinion -- unless it is the idea being pushed by some members of Congress to start using taxpayers' money to pay for congressional campaigns.
The Federal Election Commission manages the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. Concerned at the declining level of taxpayers checking off -- it went from more than 28 percent of 1040 filers to below 20 percent during the past decade -- it commissioned a study of attitudes toward public funding of presidential elections.
In November and December of last year, six focus groups -- guided discussion sessions -- were held in Portland, Ore., Chattanooga, Tenn. and Fort Lee, N.J. Citizens who did and did not check off for the fund discussed politics and campaign finance with marketing consultants.
Here is what the marketing team concluded after the sessions:
"No one could specify any of the benefits the program had produced that reflected its goals; they couldn't identify a 'poor' candidate that had come forth; 'politicians' continue to be highly engaged in fund raising; 'politicians' continue to be 'bought' by PACs and other major forces such as 'big business;' and political campaigns have not been elevated to a 'higher level' nor have become 'less dirty.' "
To read the summary of the focus groups is to sense the skepticism the public feels toward public funding of presidential campaigns. Those who have read the transcripts say it goes beyond skepticism to hostility.
What did the marketing consultants who conducted the study conclude? "There clearly is a lack of information among the general public when they make their decision either to contribute or not to contribute to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. In this regard, citizens are not making an 'informed' decision."
It's your fault, Mr. and Ms. Uninformed Citizen! Armed with this insight, the FEC spent $72,000 to produce a "public service" radio and television message to get you stupid citizens to check off.
The chairman of the FEC, John Warren McGarry, and his colleague Thomas Josefiak must know this is not going to work. No amount of public education is going to save the fund. People don't like it. Informed people.
Those two FEC members have gone public with recommendations that supplemental funds be appropriated when the fund runs low (McGarry) or that "Congress should simply eliminate the checkoff box from the 1040 tax form and provide sufficient funds to meet its pledge of public funding to presidential candidates under the law" (Josefiak).
How can they believe the public wants this? The fact that fewer than one 1040 filer in five checks off suggests to me landslide opposition to the idea of public financing of campaigns.
I'll tell you something else. The public is "informed" enough about this topic to form a legitimate objection to the fund. What the members of those focus groups said was right on target. "Poor" candidates have not won nominations over well-financed ones. Presidential candidates continue to spend a lot of time and effort (and promising and compromising) in order to raise private funds. Big business and PACs are more influential than ever. Political campaigns are as negative as ever, at least in modern times.
The members of the focus groups may not have been informed in the sense of knowing the specifics, but they sure hit the bull's-eye about special interests' continued spending and influence. There is no wall between presidential candidates and fat cats, not even a low one. This, the one element of reform that justified the whole experiment, is the reform that never was.