Taxpayer Financing of Campaigns Returns

Taxpayer financing of congressional campaigns has returned.

Yesterday Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) introduced a modified version of their public financing bill first proposed in 2007, now as then called the Fair Elections Now Act (FENA).  The older version included “free media vouchers” and discounted ad rates for television; the new model focuses more on small contributions and matching funds from the federal treasury.

These bills to finance campaigns with government revenue are often introduced in Congress and rarely make any headway, much less pass either chamber.  Their perennial failure is not difficult to understand. Members are interested in campaign finance regulations that make it more difficult for challengers to raise money.  They are not interested in giving candidates federal revenue to run against incumbents. Members are especially unwilling to fund campaigns because the public takes a dim view of  using taxes in this way.

FENA tries to avoid public opposition by creating the appearance that taxpayers do not actually fund this scheme.

As Politico reports:

In the Senate version, the public money would come from assessing the country’s largest government contractors with a small surcharge… In the House, the money would come from the sale of broadcast spectrum.

But the question should be asked: if public financing of campaigns will actually achieve all the great things claimed by its proponents, shouldn’t the public be asked to pay the bill? After all, the public can expect to receive the promised benefits. Why should the bill be financed by government contractors and the sale of public assets?

We know the answer to these questions. Durbin and Specter have to obscure the role of taxes in these schemes because the public would oppose the bill if taxpayers were on the hook for the funding. Yet the senators obscure rather than eliminate the role of the taxpayer who will have to pay higher levies to fund more expensive government contracts or to replace the money that might have been obtained from the sale of the spectrum.  Once the FENA lunch turns out not to be free, will voters feel like paying the tab?

The rationale for the new program also merits attention. In the past, advocates of taxpayer financing argued that private financing of campaigns corrupted representation, policymaking, and the general political culture.  Replacing private contributions with public financing would, it was claimed, remove private interests and end corruption.  That rationale appealed to most of the supporters of  public financing; they tend toward the left politically and had little trouble believing the Republicans running Congress – all of them – were corrupt.  But 2006 brought the Democrats back to power, and general claims of corruption no longer fit the background assumptions of both powerful legislators and supporters of public financing. So we now hear little about corruption and a lot about how FENA will free up legislators to “tend to the people’s business.”

Will “tending to the people’s business” be enough to convince Americans to spend tax dollars funding congressional campaigns at a time of record public sector deficits brought about by reckless spending on bailouts and much else?

The question answers itself.