By Dan Eggen
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.
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.
"For the major candidates, the best-known candidates, the system is irrelevant at this point," he said. "The ones who are relying on it now are the more marginal candidates. . . . The question is whether the Republican leadership is happy not to finance those people."
Despite Obama's track record, the White House this week came out against the idea of eliminating public financing, arguing that the program needs to be "fixed rather than dismantled." Democrats say that doing away with the system would only exacerbate the effects of a Supreme Court decision last year to allow unlimited corporate spending in elections.
"This is not the time to further empower the special interests or to obstruct the work of reform," the White House statement said.
Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer, a longtime activist who helped create the public financing system, said Republicans are "attacking a broken system that needs to be repaired, not repealed."
"This is not about budget-cutting; this is about trying to kill the idea of public financing for federal elections," he said. "They're just turning the presidency and the political system over to big donors, bundlers and corporate spenders."
But Bradley A. Smith, a former FEC chairman who opposes many campaign finance restrictions, said public financing "is a hobbyhorse for white, upscale liberals" that has done nothing to lessen corruption or the role of money in politics.
"The fact that you offer people free money and they take it doesn't mean that the program is a success," Smith said. "The government should not be taking your tax money and my tax money to fund political candidates."