Running Out of Campaign Funds

March 14, 1993

The chairman of the Federal Election Commission says there may be "no money whatsoever" in the presidential election fund for candidates in the primaries in 1996. The money is provided in accordance with taxpayer "check off" instructions on 1040 forms. A taxpayer may designate $1 for the fund, without adding $1 to the amount owed. The fund now has $4 million. If 19 percent of taxpayers, which is the percentage that designated $1 for the fund last year, earmark $1 for the fund in each of the next four years, there would be approximately $124 million for the campaign of 1996.

It probably won't be that much (the percentage of taxpayers checking off keeps dropping), and $124 million won't be enough to help primary candidates anyway. The FEC must set aside money for the conventions and the general election before it can give primary candidates money. Two 1996 conventions will cost taxpayers about $25 million, and the general election about $120.

So candidates seeking nomination will have to rely on special interests and their own fortunes. Actually, they have been relying in large part on special interests all along. And so have the party's nominees. The fact is that for every dollar from the Treasury given to major party presidential candidates in 1992 and 1988, before and after nomination, special interests gave them or spent in their behalf at least another dollar, thanks to loopholes in the law.

So the principal aim of taxpayer subsidies to presidential candidates -- ending special interest influence -- has not been achieved. One big reason the American taxpayer has not embraced the law is that it has been so obvious that the law is an ineffective device for keeping campaigns unbeholden to special interests.

The campaign reform law has its value. It has made record-keeping more thorough, honest and public. This aspect of the law needs to be retained and improved. But when we hear office holders and party leaders, Democrats for the most part, talk about further "reform" in the sense of increasing the checkoff from $1 to $2.50 for the presidential fund, without closing up those loopholes, and increasing it to $5 to subsidize congressional candidates, we say enough is enough.

Congress would do better to repeal the checkoff and the subsidy. It sounded like a good idea at the time, but now, after five elections have proved the law is ineffective -- and now that 81 percent of taxpayers are against it -- it makes no sense.

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