BACK WHEN his presidential campaign was running on fumes, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) applied to participate in the system to provide public matching funds to primary candidates who agree to abide by spending limits. The Federal Election Commission certified Mr. McCain's eligibility to receive the funds, but -- his fortunes having undergone an astonishing reversal -- Mr. McCain decided not to take them after all. That's neither surprising nor hypocritical. The matching fund system is woefully outdated. The spending limits it sets and the amounts it provides are both so low that it disadvantages candidates to participate. In 2003, Howard Dean, now chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was certified to receive matching funds and then withdrew from the system.
The wrinkle in Mr. McCain's case is twofold. First, the FEC is, literally, non-functional. It has only two sitting members, and the chairman, Republican David M. Mason, told the McCain campaign in a letter last month that he believes that four commissioners, a quorum, are needed to approve Mr. McCain's request to withdraw. This is surreal. Mr. McCain shouldn't be trapped by a standoff over which he has no control -- although, we would note, the logjam could be fixed if Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) were to allow an up-or-down vote on the pending nominees.
Second, and more problematic, is the question of whether Mr. McCain used his eligibility for matching funds as collateral for a $4 million loan; if so, Mr. McCain would be deemed to have used the matching fund program to his financial advantage, even without having received any money, and so would be bound by the spending limits. Mr. McCain didn't directly pledge the expected matching funds as security, but he did promise that if his campaign went badly, he would stay in the race and seek matching funds in order to be able to repay the bank. The McCain campaign and the bank say that this does not rise to the level of using the FEC certification as collateral for the loan and that they were careful to avoid that trap. The DNC has filed a complaint with the FEC asserting that it does rise to such a level and that Mr. McCain is therefore stuck in the matching funds system. However the loan terms are understood, this is not Mr. McCain's proudest moment as a reformer: He derived some benefit from the matching funds system and then abandoned it when that was to his advantage.
We understand Democrats' urge to derive a political advantage from this situation, but consider: Would the country really be better off with a system that would allow one party's nominee to spend unlimited amounts while the other -- not having taken a dime in public funds -- is hobbled by spending constraints for the rest of the supposed primary season, which stretches until the conventions in late August and early September? The primary spending limit is about $57 million; Mr. McCain had reported spending $50 million by the end of January. The public financing system needs fixing. In the meantime, voters would be better served by having the Republican and Democratic nominees compete on a reasonably level playing field.