Public Funding - a Failed Reform

THE First Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees Americans the right of free speech, was the most important electoral reform ever enacted.

So why, two centuries later, is the United States government bribing people to give up this right through the Presidential Election Campaign Fund?

And why are candidates who refuse to participate in this billion-dollar boondoggle being discriminated against, excluded from debates, and kept off state ballots?

Our answers could fill a book. They point to two conclusions concerning the Presidential Election Campaign Fund: (1) it should not be used as a measure of political viability; and (2) it should be abolished.

The Presidential Election Campaign Fund was created by the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974 (FECA). This law, passed in the "reform-mania" that gripped Congress in the wake of the Watergate scandal, advanced two key changes in the country's electoral system: public financing and mandatory limits on campaign spending.

The US Supreme Court, in the landmark 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, struck down the mandatory spending limits as an unconstitutional restriction on free speech. The high court ruled that the only constitutional way for the federal government to limit speech was to, in effect, bribe people to limit their speech voluntarily.

If Congress wanted to limit campaign spending it was going to have to use taxpayers' money, through public financing of campaigns, to do it. And so the court allowed the Presidential Election Campaign Fund to stand as a means of enticing candidates into accepting voluntary spending limits.

Since 1976, the Presidential Election Campaign Fund has provided presidential candidates grants drawn on the US Treasury to pay for their campaigns. In return for this generous public subsidy, candidates must agree to limit their campaign spending to an amount prescribed by the government.

The subsidy is so generous that most major candidates cannot afford to refuse it. The two major candidates in the 1992 general election each will receive grants of $55 million. Only two major candidates, not wanting to use taxpayers' money for their campaigns, have declined: John Connally in 1980 and Eugene McCarthy in 1992.

A reformer's dream when it was enacted, the Presidential Election Campaign Fund has become the taxpayers' nightmare. The fund props up a failed system of spending limits, in which special interest soft money (off-the-books, unregulated, and unlimited) flows through innumerable loopholes by the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Further, the fund has devoured half a billion taxpayer dollars that could have been put to infinitely more worthwhile uses. And taxpayers have been forced to financially support the causes of candidates they otherwise would not support.

OT only are participating candidates being bribed to restrict their First Amendment freedoms, but even those candidates who refuse this bribe on principle are finding their rights infringed by this fund. That is what is happening to the McCarthy '92 presidential campaign.

The Presidential Election Campaign Fund is now being used to gauge whether a candidacy is serious. The national media are using it to determine which candidates merit being seen, heard, or written about.

The fund is also used by some states to determine whether a candidate will be placed on the ballot in primary elections.

In other words, if a candidate refuses to sign up for the fund, or is not "generally recognized in the national news media" (often two sides of the same coin), then that candidate can be denied the right even to run. Such a candidate is subject to exclusion from some state primary election ballots and is not invited to appear or participate in media-sponsored "candidate debates."

It is absurd - if not unconstitutional - to punish candidates for turning down taxpayer funds to pay for their campaigns. The Presidential Election Campaign Fund should not even exist, let alone be used as a political credibility barometer.

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