As Democratic presidential candidates begin to reveal how much money they raised last quarter, it makes sense to examine the policies they promote about raising that money. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders (and at least eight others) have advocated for expanding or mandating government-funded elections.
Today, most advocates for government-funded campaigns, also called publicly funded campaigns, are on the left, but the idea originated with a Republican. Teddy Roosevelt argued in his 1907 State of the Union Address, “The need for collecting large campaign funds would vanish if Congress provided an appropriation for the proper and legitimate expenses of each of the great national parties.” Moreover, every Republican presidential candidate between 1976 and 2012 accepted government funding. (In 2008, John McCain was the last Republican presidential candidate to accept government funding and its accompanying spending limits after Barack Obama declined the money and went on to dramatically outraise and outspend him.)
Simply put, the government offers matching dollars to primary candidates after they have demonstrated a requisite level of financial support. When a candidate wins the primary and moves on to the general election, he or she is then eligible for a grant to cover certain campaign expenses. To qualify for the grant, the candidate must agree to limit their campaign spending and not accept private contributions in the general election.
Although many of this cycle’s presidential candidates have called for expanding or mandating government-funded campaigns, zero of them have opted in to the current system. Why not? Because it limits spending and contributions. For example, if either Trump or Clinton had chosen to accept public funding in 2016, they would have been eligible for a maximum of $96 million. To put that in perspective, in 2016, Trump’s campaign spent $326 million, and Clinton’s campaign spent $563 million. To accept government funding under the current system would hamstring a campaign.
Proponents of government-funded campaigns actually want public funding combined with limits on campaign contributions and spending. The “For the People Act” which passed the U.S. House in March would do both, but as long as Republicans control the Senate, it’s not likely to become law.
Proponents believe government-funded campaigns will reduce the influence of large corporations and wealthy donors. They argue it will even the playing field for candidates who aren’t rich or well-connected. Calls for publicly funded campaigns have been on the rise since the 2010 U.S Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, which allowed corporations, unions, and other organizations to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections. In fact, criticism of Citizens United has given rise to some form of public financing for campaigns in 14 states.
Imagine, for example, giving the tax dollars of Jewish Americans to a candidate with Neo-Nazi ties. Thomas Jefferson addressed the problem when he said, “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.”
Incumbents have a natural financial advantage over challengers because they already enjoy name recognition. They also have the ability to remind voters of the benefits or “favors” they have enacted while in office. They are able to tap into networks of special interests which often give money to incumbents in order to “grease the wheels” for lobbying. Challengers, on the other hand, rarely receive money from special interests because they are expected to lose.
In order to qualify for government funding, candidates have to meet government mandated (aka incumbent decided) requirements. This system, by default, eliminates candidates and smaller, start-up campaigns who might be off to a slow start but could gain traction later.
To do so has been deemed a violation of the First Amendment by the Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo.
Mandating government-funded campaigns would cost billions of dollars, in a time when America is already deeply in debt.
Government-funded campaigns are not the panacea that many would have you believe. The government should not be in the business of telling you how much of your own money you can spend on the candidates and ideas you support. Nor should the government be able to coerce you into spending your tax dollars on candidates you don’t support.
The better solution for political corruption is for citizens to make informed choices before elections and to hold their representatives accountable after the elections. That’s why we built Transparency Texas — so you can see exactly who’s giving and who’s getting in Texas politics. Search here by Texas candidate, donor, or PAC to see the money in context for yourself. Search here to find information on federal and presidential candidates.
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