Proponents of spending tax money to reform the much-maligned congressional campaign system will find little to cheer about in a new study of public financing of presidential elections.
When the Federal Election Commission sponsored focus groups on the subject at the end of last year, they found the participants so angry about politicians in general that the anger overwhelmed any discussion of the presidential checkoff issue.
"It was often difficult to keep the group focused on the subject at hand because of their anger at politicians and a perception of wasteful spending by government," the report to the FEC by Market Decisions Corp. of Portland, Ore., said. "Their anger associated with those concerns contaminated their consideration of presidential campaign funding. . . . "
Some campaign finance reform advocates in Congress have proposed increasing the voluntary checkoff from the $1 designated for the presidential fund to $3 to pay for congressional races, too.
The FEC hired the Portland firm because it is facing the possibility that the fund, started as a post-Watergate reform in the mid-1970s, won't have enough money to provide matching funds for candidates in the 1992 presidential primary season. The idea, FEC spokesman Fred Eiland said, was to determine what the public knew about the system so the agency could fashion a program to publicize the problem.
Market Decisions Corp. conducted two sessions in Fort Lee, N.J., Chattanooga, Tenn., and Portland. One group in each city was made up of individuals who participated in the checkoff program and one of those who didn't. Ray Ashmun, who ran the focus groups, found that participants had little knowledge of how the system worked or how their money was spent if they designated $1 of their taxes to go to the fund.
When asked why the program was started, for example, few persons recalled that it was a product of the Watergate era. "Citizens are not making an 'informed' decision" when they decide whether or not to designate $1 to the fund, Ashmun wrote the FEC. "Because of the size of the program and its obscurity, it deserves to have promotional activity directed to the public."
More than $480 million in taxpayer funds have been spent on presidential candidates since the system started with the 1976 election. Only about 20 percent of the taxpayers are participating in the fund, limiting the income. At the same time, the expenditures keep rising because they are indexed to inflation.
Presidential candidates who qualify by raising $5,000 in donations of $250 or less in 20 states are eligible to have their donations matched dollar for dollar from the fund if they agree to spending limits. Each candidate in the general election also gets public money if he agrees not to raise money privately. This was ignored by both parties in 1988, as fund-raisers for Michael S. Dukakis and George Bush each raised another $50 million to help their ticket.
The study found some focus group participants particularly outraged to learn tax money goes to subsidize the presidential nominating conventions. ". . . that money is going to conventions? Well, I don't want any money going to a drunken brawl, a week-long party," the report quoted one Chattanooga resident as saying.
Ashmun said in an interview yesterday that participants who didn't contribute to the presidential fund were the most emotional in denouncing politicians. He added that he is among the 80 percent of taxpayers who don't use the checkoff. "And now I feel more strongly about it because I'm more informed," he said.
FIGURES IN MILLIONS OF DOLLARS
The publicly financed Presidential Election Campaign Fund was created in the mid-70s, part of the campaign reform legislation passed in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Taxpayers may contribute $1 to the fund by "checking" a box on their tax returns.
As the chart illustrates, the fund has consistently paid out more money for primaries, conventions and general elections, but the number of people contributing has declined. Only about 20% of taxpayers now participate.