April 6, 2009

April 6, 2009 | Commentary on Political Thought

Should Taxpayers Subsidize Pols?

Sen. Richard J. Durbin's (D-Ill.) Fair Elections Now Act, introduced on Tuesday, purports to "reform" our political system by using public funds (tax dollars) to finance congressional campaigns. According to Durbin, it will "restore this democracy to its basic values."Odd, as I don't recall the Founding Fathers asserting a basic, democratic value of forcing taxpayers to fund political speech with which they disagree.

This bill would allow candidates to opt into a public funding program if they raised a minimal amount of money from home-state residents.This proposal resembles the current public funding program for presidential primaries.But serious White House contenders have recently eschewed that program because it provides nothing near the amount necessary to run a nationwide campaign. And there is no indication that the proposed program for congressional candidates would be any better.

The key difference between Durbin's congressional proposal and the existing presidential matching system is that the funding for the chief executive races is completely voluntary -- via taxpayer check-offs on tax returns.Durbin would fund his new program by taxing government contractors.

The House version of the bill, sponsored by Reps. John B. Larson (D-Conn.) and Walter B. Jones Jr. (R-N.C.), would be funded by broadcast spectrum sales by the Federal Communications Commission (like the analog channels being given back to the FCC by television stations switching over to digital channels), a limited source of funding.That money is currently going into general Treasury revenues and some deficit reduction.

The Senate and House bills are taking the mandatory funding route for a very practical reason: The American people won't fund it voluntarily.The presidential fund never was a big success.When first created, only 30 percent of taxpayers volunteered to donate money to it.That percentage has steadily declined over three decades.Only 8 percent checked the funding box in 2007.

Taxing government contractors or using spectrum sales may sound innocuous, but it will simply make government more expensive, giving taxpayers less bang for their buck.Contractors will necessarily incorporate the cost of the tax into their government bids, effectively passing the costs on to the Treasury.Using spectrum sales for political campaigns will also take away revenues that would otherwise fund existing government programs or reduce the deficit, robbing Peter to pay Paul. Durbin may call it a tax on contractors, and Larson may believe spectrum sales are free money, but both concepts are ultimately a tax increase for rank-and-file taxpayers.

Such a tax also raises significant constitutional concerns. The First Amendment guarantees the right to not associate with individuals whose political beliefs we do not share. Forcing individuals (such as contractors and broadcast spectrum purchasers) to subsidize political candidates with whom they vehemently disagree violates this associational right.

There are other problems, as well. This public funding program would necessarily be open to any candidates who can meet its minimal requirements.That includes fringe candidates and even felons. Case in point: The presidential funding program has bankrolled Lyndon LaRouche to the tune of millions of dollars -- $ 1.5 million in 2008 alone.

Our privately funded system has the virtue of requiring candidates to compete in the marketplace of ideas for contributions.Public funding requires mindless subsidies for failed ideas that might be better relegated to the dustbin of history.

The belief that public funding will somehow clean up our election system is based on rhetoric, not facts. Evidence that contributions substantially influence votes is almost nonexistent. Legislators' votes depend almost entirely on their own beliefs and the preferences of their voters and their party -- which is exactly the way we want a representative democracy to work.

Studies show that contributors give to like-minded candidates who vote for positions consistent with the donors' beliefs, regardless of campaign contributions. Of the three states graded by Governing magazine as having the best state governments, two -- Utah and Virginia -- have no contribution limits. The argument that an election system using private contributions is somehow naturally corrupting simply does not hold water. There is not only nothing wrong with this; it is a healthy sign of the participatory nature of our system. Just because you support the campaigns of candidates you think have the correct view on an important public policy question does not make you a pernicious influence that must be outlawed.

If the "reformers" really want to restore democracy to its basic values, they should not force Americans to subsidize failure -- either in the economy through bailouts or in politics through misguided compulsory public funding schemes.

Hans A. von Spakovsky is a visiting legal scholar at the Heritage Foundation. He is also a former commissioner on the Federal Election Commission and counsel to the assistant attorney general for civil rights at the Department of Justice.

About the Author

Hans A. von Spakovsky Manager, Election Law Reform Initiative and Senior Legal Fellow
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

Related Issues: Political Thought

First Appeared in Politico