Effect of House GOP's anti-campaign-financing bill would be felt by Republicans

The 2010 election brought scores of tea party-backed candidates into Washington.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 11:32 PM

By voting Wednesday to abolish public financing for presidential campaigns, House Republicans endorsed a policy that could cause serious problems for one particular group: fellow Republicans hoping to run for the White House in 2012.

On a mostly party-line vote of 239 to 160, the House approved a measure that would eliminate the checkoff Americans can mark on their federal income tax forms to make a $3 donation toward presidential contests. That system allows candidates to receive public matching money if they agree to limit expenditures during a primary or general election contest.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) and other Republicans portray the bill primarily as a cost-cutting measure that would save about $520 million over 10 years. But it faces strong opposition from the White House and Senate Democrats, who say it would further strengthen the influence of corporations and other monied interest groups.

The irony is that the bill's most immediate effect would be felt by Republicans - including those connected to the tea party movement - who might find it difficult to mount a credible primary run without public funding.

This is especially true given the presence of well-funded establishment figures such as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who has amassed substantial support from wealthy donors.

Public financing could give a leg up to potential GOP candidates with shallower pockets, such as Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Mike Pence (Ind.), both of whom voted to scrap the system.

Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), the bill's sponsor in the House, said it would be a small price to pay for eliminating the program. "The only people who are going to miss it are Republican candidates in 2012," he said at a hearing this week.

The public financing system, put in place after the political money scandals of the Watergate years, has been widely used by candidates from both parties to help pay for presidential campaigns and political conventions. Candidates can use taxpayer money to help finance their campaigns in exchange for adhering to spending limits. The amount available is recalculated each cycle based on a formula that adjusts for inflation.

The Democracy 21 advocacy group calculates that the two parties and their candidates have received $1.3 billion in public financing for presidential campaigns since 1976, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Perhaps the biggest recipient has been conservative icon Ronald Reagan, who tapped into taxpayer money for presidential races in 1976, 1980 and 1984, the group said.

But skyrocketing campaign spending has increasingly made it difficult for candidates to agree to funding limits in exchange for public money. Barack Obama became the first major presidential candidate to forgo the system in 2008, using Internet fundraising and other innovations to raise a record $750 million.

Obama's GOP challenger, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), opted to take $84 million in public financing for the general election, putting him at a serious financial disadvantage in the final weeks of the campaign. The spending pattern is expected to accelerate in 2012, when experts predict Obama alone could raise $1 billion.

Lawrence M. Noble, a former Federal Election Commission counsel now at Skadden Arps, said he doubts that Obama or his GOP opponent will agree to funding limits in 2012.

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