The Failures of Taxpayer Financing of Presidential Campaigns

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In 1974 Congress amended the Federal ElectionCampaign Act to provide taxpayer financing forpresidential campaigns. The presidential programhad several goals: reducing corruption, reducingthe appearance of corruption, and easing the rigorsof fundraising for candidates while increasing electoralcompetition, public discussion, and publicparticipation in financing presidential campaigns.Public financing also sought, for partisan reasons,to equalize spending between the major party candidatesin the general presidential election.

Defenders and critics of presidential publicfunding agree that the program is now in trouble.By Election Day 2008, the presidential publicfinancing system may be either insolvent or irrelevant,or both. Proponents of public financingargue for a major overhaul of the program,including large increases in taxpayer financingfor the parties and their candidates.

Presidential public financing has failed tomeet its goals. The presidential program has neitherincreased trust in government nor spurredelectoral competition in the primaries or the generalelections. By reducing the rigors of fundraising,the system has denied the electorate importantinformation about presidential candidatesand given the major political parties significantsubsides at taxpayer expense. The American taxpayerhas rejected the presidential program, asreflected by the lack of interest in the checkoffprogram. By 2008 about half as many Americansas currently give private donations to candidatesor parties will participate in the presidential publicfinancing system.

John Samples

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.