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House bill ends public financing for elections

Jim Abrams

That $3 check-off for election financing would disappear from income tax forms under House legislation that abolishes public financing of presidential campaigns.

The Republican-backed bill, which would also dismantle an election oversight agency created after the disputed 2000 presidential vote, is heading for likely passage in the House Thursday. From there, it goes to the Senate, where it's likely to languish _ the chances of the Democratic majority taking it up are small.

Under the bill, sponsored by Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., the Presidential Election Campaign Fund and the Presidential Primary Matching Payment Account, financed by those $3 voluntary check-offs, would be eliminated with all leftover money going to reduce the federal deficit. The funds have a balance of about $200 million.

It would also eliminate the Election Assistance Commission, an agency created as part of a 2002 law to modernize voting. The Obama administration this year sought a budget of $14 million for the commission, which tests and certifies voting machines and manages a national clearinghouse on elections.

The White House, in a statement, said it strongly opposed the bill because it would expand the power of corporations and special interests in elections and "force many candidates into an endless cycle of fundraising at the expense of engagement with voters in the issues."

Republicans argue that it is time to get rid of a public financing system that just about everyone acknowledges is broken.

The post-Watergate program, which officially started in 1976, has been on the decline in recent years because of public disinterest and the massive infusion of private contributions in campaigns. The proportion of taxpayers donating $3, up from $1 in 1993, has dropped from 20 percent in 1988 to 7.4 percent in 2008, the last presidential election year.

Barack Obama became the first presidential candidate to decline public financing, which restricts raising private money. Obama was able to raise nearly $750 million, multiple times what he would have received from federal assistance. Because of that, the Federal Election Commission says public funding dropped from nearly $240 million in 2000 to $139 million in 2008. This year, no candidate has asked for primary matching funds.

The Obama administration has argued that the system should be fixed rather than dismantled, but Democratic-led efforts to strengthen public financing have made little headway. One proposal, by Reps. David Price, D-N.C., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., would raise the taxpayer check-off to $10, eliminate the general election spending limit on participating candidates and provide matching funds for donations of $200 or less.

Groups seeking to improve the election system, including Common Cause, Democracy 21, Public Citizen and the League of Women Voters, urged the defeat of the Harper legislation, saying public financing has become even more important after the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision that eased restrictions on corporate spending in political campaigns.

"The presidential public financing system should be repaired, not repealed. The Election Administration Commission should be strengthened, not terminated," the groups wrote to lawmakers.

Harper argues that the commission has outlived its usefulness, having completed its primary mission of overseeing the distribution of some $3 billion to states to update voting equipment and voter registration systems. He says the commission spends more than half its budget on administrative costs, and its remaining duties can be shifted to the FEC.

The election commission says it continues to test and certify voting equipment, reducing duplication and saving local election officials time and money. It also provides training and data to election officials.

The legislation would also end federal assistance for the two parties' presidential conventions. The FEC says both parties have already received initial payments of almost $18 million from the Treasury for planning and conducting their 2012 nominating conventions.

The House last January passed a bill that would have eliminated public financing for presidential elections, but it died in the Senate. The House in June took up a Harper bill aimed specifically at getting rid of the EAC, but it fell short of getting the two-thirds majority under a special procedure.


The bill is H.R. 3463.




The Associated Press