House GOP Plans Attack on Fair Elections

After taking power in the House, the new Republican majority is preparing to eliminate one of the most significant efforts to ensure fair elections: the public finance system in presidential races. Instead of making the public finance system stronger, the GOP wants to do away with it altogether with little if any debate. Already, many House Republicans are pushing legislation that would allow corporations to make direct donations to candidates for public office even though “85% of voters say that corporations have too much influence over the political system today.” By eliminating the ability of campaigns to opt to receive public finances, candidates will become more, not less, dependent on the shadowy corporate dollars flowing into our elections.

Andy Kroll of Mother Jones reports on the GOP’s plan to scrap public financing of presidential campaigns:

On Wednesday, House Republicans plan to rush to the floor a bill that would eliminate the federal government’s presidential financing system—in the process, violating recent pledges by the GOP’s leadership of increased transparency and debate in Congress. Not one hearing has been held on the legislation, nor has a single committee debated its merits. If it passes, it will roll back more than 30 years of law born out of the Watergate scandal, eviscerating one of the few remaining protections stopping corporations from heavily influencing, if not outright buying, American elections, reform experts say.

Democratic lawmakers and campaign finance reformers blasted the bill, not only for seeking to kill public financing but for breaking the GOP’s campaign promises on transparency and accountability. "This is a sneak attack on the system," says Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). "It’s a total break from their public pledge for transparency and openness." Fred Wertheimer, a longtime campaign finance reform advocate at Democracy 21, called the bill "a gross abuse of the legislative process."

Public financing of presidential campaigns provides matching tax dollars to the small donations received by candidates who agree to publicly finance their campaigns, instead of relying on private donations. The intent is to encourage small donations, and the burden on taxpayers isn’t much: Americans can voluntarily contribute $3 to the fund on their federal tax filings. The public finance system was created in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal in the mid-1970s. After President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign was found to have illegally accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from big corporations, Congress created a public financing system so that candidates wouldn’t have to rely on corporations and deep-pocketed donors to finance their campaigns.

The way reformers see it, the presidential public financing system needs repair, not repeal. Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, says the amount of public funds currently available to candidates is too small to be competitive in modern presidential races. She says lawmakers need to update the system to better emphasize small donations to candidates and raise the total amount of public funding available. "Imagine if you didn’t make any changes to the tax code since 1976. Of course public financing is outdated. The issue, then, is not to get rid of, but how to fix."

Update: The House of Representatives voted 239-160 to end the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, although it’s chances to pass the Senate are low.