Your Dollars for Duke

January 20, 1992

If David Duke is able to raise $5,000 in contributions of $250 or less in each of 20 states, you will have the pleasure of subsidizing his campaign for the presidency. Dollar for dollar, his private contributions will be matched by taxpayer dollars from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund.

Or until the money runs out. That may happen before the primary season is over. Many taxpayers have stopped earmarking money for the fund on their 1040 income-tax forms. The percentage who do has dropped from about 30 percent to about 20 percent since 1980. So a fund with less money than in the past may be depleted not only by such candidates as Bill Clinton, Tom Harkin, Bob Kerrey and George Bush, but also by Mr. Duke and other fringe candidates such as Lenora Falani, who got nearly $1 million in 1988 and has already qualified for funds again this year.

(The fact that you do not use the checkoff does not mean your dollars won't be used to subsidize candidates. Those who check off are not adding a dollar to their tax returns. Just earmarking. The campaign fund draws on the Treasury. A dollar drawn for campaign expenditures is a dollar of your money not available for something else.)

One way to keep the fund "solvent" -- and despite the campaign finance system's many faults it should be maintained -- is to allow taxpayers to contribute as much in constant dollars as was the intent of Congress when it passed the law in the 1970s. A dollar 20 years ago when Congress established the checkoff is worth $3.34 in today's currency. Congress ought to adjust the checkoff to take inflation's ravages into account. That would triple the available funds at a stroke.

Many taxpayers who continue to check off their 1040s to earmark campaign funds might object to that, however, as long as it is so easy for small groups of fringe candidates and parties -- such as Mr. Duke and Ms. Falani, among others -- to qualify. One way to deal with that is to raise the qualifying hurdle back to where it was in constant dollars in the 1970s. Adjusted for inflation, that $100,000 in qualifying funds has become $334,000, that $250 individual donation is now the equivalent of $800, and the $5,000 per state today equals $16,000.

Past elections have shown that candidates unable to raise a lot more than $300,000 are not candidates in the ordinary sense of the word. They should have the right to run, but they should not have the right to be subsidized, especially at the expense of bona fide candidates. This diminishes rather than enhances the campaign process.

If, as we assume, it is too late to do anything about the 1992 campaign, surely Congress will do something about the long-term problem, by promptly raising the amount that goes into the fund when taxpayers check off next April -- and by raising the qualifying hurdle for candidates.

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