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January 23, 2007
Public Financing Of Elections, 1976-2006

Hillary Clinton may not have killed it herself, but she delivered the coup de grace to public financing of presidential campaigns by refusing federal matching funds for both the primaries and the general election. The increasingly irrelevant fund had been on life support since the 2004 election, when both candidates eschewed its spending limits for private financing:

The public financing system for presidential campaigns, a post-Watergate initiative hailed for decades as the best way to rid politics of the corrupting influence of money, may have quietly died over the weekend.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York became the first candidate since the program began in 1976 to forgo public financing for both the primary and the general election because of the spending limits that come with the federal money. By declaring her confidence that she could raise far more than the roughly $150 million the system would provide for the 2008 presidential primaries and general election, Mrs. Clinton makes it difficult for other serious candidates to participate in the system without putting themselves at a significant disadvantage.

Officials of the Federal Election Commission and advisers to several campaigns say they expect the two candidates who reach Election Day 2008 will raise more than $500 million apiece. Including money raised by other primary candidates, the total spent on the presidential election could easily exceed $1 billion.

People involved in the Republican primary campaign of Senator John McCain of Arizona say he, too, is beginning to seek private donations for the primary and general elections, albeit with the option of returning them. A longtime proponent of campaign finance change, Mr. McCain has recently removed his name as a co-sponsor of a bill to expand the presidential public financing program.

McCain has backed away from public financing, mindful of the criticism of the BCRA mounted from Republicans he needs to attract to win the primaries. He hasn't backed away from the BCRA itself, but he understands the mood regarding government oversight of political activity.

The end of this fund is nothing to mourn. While the presidential campaign funding was a less egregious form of contribution control -- after all, the candidates could opt out, as they are now -- it still did little towards its presumed goal of eliminating corruption. Candidates who opted into the system still raised money and worked with power brokers to get it. In the end, it only worked as a cap on spending, hardly worth the overlooked problem of forcing taxpayers to fund candidates with whom they disagreed. And let's also not forget the rather objectionable idea of putting the federal government in charge of determining which candidates are acceptable to run it.

Expect to see Congress attempt to give this program a little CPR by raising the cap on spending -- perhaps to as much as the $500 million that this campaign will wind up costing each major-party nominee. That will only temporarily extend the delusion that government programs mean less corruption than private markets. The only real reform will come when Congress demands full, complete, and immediate disclosure of all contributions via the Internet for all national office elections, including the Senate, which is now excused from such disclosures. Eliminate all of the contribution shelters like 527s and end the distinctions between hard and soft money, and force the candidates and the parties to be responsible for their message, donors, and advertising.

If Hillary can end this silly and autocratic program, then perhaps some good will come from her candidacy after all.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 23, 2007 6:25 AM

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