$1 investment in good government

Bob Moos

April 12, 1991|By Bob Moos

A TAX TIP for late filers, like myself: This weekend, as you're (er, we're) frantically filling out the beloved 1040 form before Monday's deadline, don't forget to check the box that directs $1 or $2 into the fund that finances presidential election campaigns.

The campaign fund has fallen on hard times. In fact, the Federal Election Commission says there may not be enough money at year's end to give candidates in the 1992 primaries their full allocation. Unless something is done, the office-seekers will get reduced matching funds.

I suppose some taxpayers would take pleasure in that. Forcing politicians to live with less does seem appealing at first. But that notion is deceptively simple. An under-funded presidential campaign wouldn't hurt only the candidates, it would end up harming the public too.

Federal financing was a godsend to presidential electioneering when Congress adopted it in 1974, in the wake of Watergate. Anyone who doubts that has only to remember how the contests were paid for before then.

Twenty years ago, huge donations from fat cats and corporations -- sometimes in the millions -- undermined government integrity. There was the Milk Producers Association's $2 million campaign pledge, linked in the public's mind to an increase in milk price supports.

And don't forget ITT's offer to underwrite expenses at the Republican Party's national convention, which many people connected to the settlement of antitrust litigation against the giant corporation. It was becoming painfully evident the White House was up for sale to the highest bidder.

Federal financing has given presidential aspirants a no-strings-attached source of campaign funding. Every four years, the Treasury Department distributes fixed amounts from the presidential campaign fund for the political parties' conventions and their nominees.

The rest goes to primary candidates who qualify by raising $100,000 from personal donations of not more than $250 apiece. The system has been well received. Of the 50 candidates in the last four elections, 49 have accepted public funds. (John Connally was the lone exception.)

I'm glad so many candidates have taken the money. For I know that as long as they do, they are less susceptible to some fat cat twisting their arms and forcing them to grant a favor that isn't in the public's best interests -- a favor that could cost us taxpayers dearly.

Although taxpayer support of the campaign fund has shrunk somewhat in recent years, it still is strong: 32.5 million of us checked "yes" in 1990. The main reason the fund is hurting is that it has become a victim of inflation.

Campaign costs have increased substantially in 17 years, yet the checkoff remains at $1 (or $2 for couples filing jointly). If the checkoff had been allowed to keep pace with campaign spending, it would be at $2.65 today and there would be a large surplus in the fund.

We taxpayers can help refill the fund by checking "yes" at the top of our 1040s (it won't increase the amount owed or reduce a refund). However, Congress also needs to fix this structural problem. Lawmakers should raise the checkoff, to $2.50 or $3, and index it for inflation.

At the same time, the lawmakers ought to plug a leak in the present system. Because of the election commission's timidity to enforce the law properly, private donations as large as $100,000 were channeled to both 1988 presidential campaigns through state party organizations.

All told, wealthy individuals and companies gave more than $45 million to help George Bush or Michael Dukakis. If it continues, such outside money will undo the progress of the past 17 years and put the fat cats back in charge.

The public funding of presidential elections may have its imperfections. But the system is a far cry from the muck of congressional campaign financing. Lawmakers need to fix the bugs and repair the leaks. In the meantime, we can do our part by checking "yes" on our income tax forms.

Happy filing!

Bob Moos is an editorial writer and columnist for the Dallas Morning News.

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