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Checkout for an Undemocratic Checkoff

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By George F. Will
Thursday, September 28, 2006

Unalloyed good news is rare, so rejoice: The foremost achievement of the political speech regulators -- a.k.a. campaign finance "reformers" -- is collapsing. Taxpayer financing of presidential campaigns, which was in parlous condition in 2004, will die in 2008.

In 2000 and 2004 George W. Bush declined public funding -- and its accompanying restrictions on raising and spending money -- for the primaries, as did Howard Dean and John Kerry in 2004. In 2004 candidates accepting taxpayer funding were restricted to spending $45 million before the conventions. Bush and Kerry raised $269.6 million and $234.6 million, respectively, before the conventions. Any candidate who accepts public funding in the 2008 primaries will be considered second-tier. And almost certainly neither party's nominee will accept public funding for the fall campaign.

Taxpayer funding, enacted in 1974, empowered taxpayers to direct, by a checkoff on their income tax forms, that $1 of their tax bill be used to fund presidential campaigns. Even though the checkoff did not increase anyone's tax bill, participation peaked in 1981 at 28.7 percent -- a landslide "vote" of 71.3 percent against it. In 1993 Congress increased the checkoff's value to $3, thereby enabling fewer people to divert more money from the government's pool of revenue collected from everyone, including the 90 percent of taxpayers who now decline to participate.

It is delicious that the McCain-Feingold law, the reformers' most recent handiwork, is helping kill taxpayer financing of presidential campaigns. Before McCain-Feingold, limits on contributions of private money -- set in 1974 and not indexed for inflation -- became steadily more restrictive, so candidates accepted public funding. But McCain-Feingold, by doubling the permissible size of campaign contributions, made it easier for candidates to raise sums far larger than taxpayer funding provides.

Public funding was supposed to increase voter turnout by decreasing the cynicism supposedly caused by privately financed politics. But Bradley Smith, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, notes that turnout did not surge until 2004. Then, the dramatic increase correlated with a surge of private money, much of it devoted to voter turnout efforts. Reformers considered this surge evidence of increasing corruption and, of course, evidence of the need for more regulation of speech.

John Samples of the Cato Institute, in his new book, "The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform," demolishes the argument that taxpayer funding has increased voters' choices by increasing the number of presidential candidates. The seven elections before 1976 had an average of 10.7 candidates who received at least 1 percent of the votes in the two major parties' primaries. Since taxpayer funding was enacted, the average has been 7.8 candidates. In the 15 elections since 1945, the two most successful independent candidates -- George Wallace in 1968 and Ross Perot in 1992 -- did not use government funds. Taxpayer financing, which liberals love, did help Ralph Nader win 2.7 percent of the 2000 vote, including 97,488 Florida votes that cost the liberals' candidate, Al Gore, the presidency.

Does anyone argue that the $1.3 billion in tax dollars given to candidates since 1976 has purchased more elevated campaigns? About 10 percent of public funding pays for the two parties' conventions -- vacuous festivities for a few thousand activists. Major broadcast organizations no longer cover conventions extensively because the public, which considers them unimportant, will not watch.

Sen. Mitch McConnell rightly says that taxpayer funding of politics has been the subject of the largest, most sustained and most accurate polling in American history. The polling occurs every year when 90 percent of taxpayers refuse to participate. Could it be that Americans recoil from funding political advocacy with which they disagree -- Republicans funding Democrats, Democrats funding Republicans, everyone funding fringe candidates such as the felon Lyndon LaRouche, who got infusions of taxpayers' money for a campaign he ran while in jail for fraud and conspiracy?

Nevertheless, reformers want to again enlarge the value of the checkoff -- the lever by which a small minority spends general tax revenue against the wishes of a vast majority. The reformers' ultimate objective is to make government the sole source of money for all federal elections. Then government money, supplied in much smaller amounts than voluntary contributions provide, would fund the (much reduced) amount of political speech about government that the government deems appropriate.

Reformers desperate to resuscitate taxpayer funding cite the supposedly scandalous fact that each party's 2008 presidential campaign may spend $500 million. If so, Americans volunteering to fund the dissemination of speech about candidates for the nation's most consequential office will contribute $1 billion, which is about half the sum they spend annually on Easter candy. Some scandal.

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