Commentary

Stop Public Financing of Campaigns

Shortly after becoming Speaker, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, got that deer-in-the-headlights look when asked to name a single program he’d eliminate. “Don’t think I have one off the top of my head,” he said.

Thankfully, the House GOP came up with an answer at the end of January, voting to zero out taxpayer financing of presidential campaigns.

At a time when America’s hemorrhaging red ink, you might complain that this reveals an instinct for plugging the capillary. Canceling a program that spent $139 million in 2008 — 0.00005 percent of the federal budget — won’t stop the bleeding.

Still, presidential public funding is a particularly obnoxious waste of taxpayer dollars, based on the false hope that handouts to politicians will deliver better politics. It may be chump change, but we’re the chumps, and it’s past time we got a refund.

[I]f taxpayers were better informed about the program, they might be less likely to support it.”

High-minded editorialists along the North Atlantic media corridor greeted the vote with indignant squeals. The GOP’s “real motive,” the New York Times suggested, was “to give an even bigger voice to big-money contributors in presidential campaigns.”

“A terrible idea” the Washington Post inveighed: the system’s “worked well for a long time.”

But to decide whether subsidizing presidential campaigns “worked well,” we need to know what the taxpayers have received for the $1.5 billion spent on the program since its inception.

The answer, according to my colleague John Samples, who’s written the definitive study on the program, is “not much.”

In the post-Watergate frenzy for “cleaning up” the inherently dirty business of politics, Congress provided for partial public funding of presidential races. Primary and general election candidates who agree to limit private contributions can receive matching funds financed by a voluntary “checkoff” on Americans’ tax returns.

Though checking the box doesn’t increase an individual’s tax liability, in recent years, fewer than 10 percent of taxpayers have diverted funds to the program. The program’s supporters counter that tax-preparation software leads many taxpayers to skip the checkoff, so we should spend still more on consciousness-raising ad campaigns.

But if taxpayers were better informed about the program, they might be less likely to support it. As Samples notes, “average Americans would be enraged to learn that they are subsidizing such efforts” as the Lyndon LaRouche cult’s six presidential runs. (It seems $5.5 million in federal funds wasn’t enough to wrest control from the people who really run things — a global conspiracy including Bilderbergers, Trilateralists and the drug-running Queen of England.)

The Natural Law Party’s John Hagelin has received nearly $2 million from the program. In 1999, Hagelin — who sports the impressive title “Raja of Invincible America” — proposed to send a crack team of “Yogic flyers” to pacify Kosovo by generating a “quantum-mechanical consciousness field.”

Say what you will about Hagelin’s levitation scheme, but if implemented, it would have been more amusing and less harmful than President Jimmy Carter’s energy policy, President George H.W. Bush’s tax hike and President Bill Clinton’s actual solution to the Kosovo crisis: a 78-day bombing campaign that violated the War Powers Act and paved the way for a 12-year nation-building mission.

And Carter, Bush and Clinton all ran on the taxpayer’s dime ($9 million, $24 million and $26 million, respectively).

Personally, I’m more offended when my tax dollars go to mainstream candidates who win.

Thomas Jefferson had it right: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.” Presidential public funding may not be breaking the bank, but it’s sinful in just the way Jefferson described.

Every few years, as new contenders ready their campaigns, we have to watch the depressing spectacle. Why should we be forced to pay for it?

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency.