The House voted along party lines Thursday to abolish public funding for presidential campaigns and eliminate the Election Assistance Commission, the latest salvo in separate battles over deficit reduction and alleged voter suppression.
The chamber approved Rep. Gregg Harper’s (R-Miss.) bill on a 235-190 vote, with no Democrats voting for it and just one Republican opposed. The measure seems unlikely to come up for a stand-alone vote soon in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The bill would end the Presidential Election Campaign Fund and the Presidential Primary Matching Payment Account and transfer the roughly $200 million contained in those funds to the U.S. Treasury to reduce the deficit. The measure would also abolish the EAC, which was created by the 2002 Help America Vote Act as an independent commission that would create election guidelines and give grants to states to update their voting equipment.
Supporters of Harper’s bill note that the presidential public financing system has been in trouble for years. President Obama declined to take funding for his general election campaign in 2008, and he and several previous candidates have refused money for their primaries. And the percentage of Americans voluntarily choosing to contribute $3 to the fund via their tax returns has dropped to just 7 percent, according to the IRS.
“We have no problem funding presidential campaigns in the United States,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who sponsored a similar bill that passed in January. “There’s plenty of money around – probably too much money. … Let’s just prove we can get rid of outmoded programs.”
But Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), the author of a competing bill to strengthen the public funding system, called it “one of the few remaining safeguards we have against the influence of the special interests.”
In a Statement of Administration Policy issued Thursday, the White House said it “strongly opposes” the bill but did not offer a veto threat.
“The bill would force many candidates into an endless cycle of fundraising at the expense of engagement with voters on the issues, and would place a premium on access to large donor or special interest support, narrowing the field of otherwise worthy candidates,” the White House said, without noting that Obama himself opted out of the public funding system in 2008 and is expected to do so again in 2012.
The bill would also eliminate public funding for national party conventions. Republicans and Democrats have already accepted $18 million apiece to stage their respective gatherings in 2012.
As for the EAC, Republicans contend that the commission has largely fulfilled its purpose and now has too much staff and money to complete what little work it has left. Democrats counter that the EAC still has important tasks, such as certifying voting machines, that should not be entrusted to the overworked and gridlocked Federal Election Commission.
More broadly, Republicans portrayed the measure as a small but important step toward more responsible budgeting.
“These types of cuts – eliminating unutilized, non-effective programs – are exactly what we need to rein in Washington’s out-of-control spending,” Harper said.
A host of government-watchdog and campaign finance groups disagreed.
“Presidential candidates are entitled to have the option of running for President on a system based on small donations and public funds as an alternative to becoming obligated and indebted to influence-seeking funders,” a coalition of reform groups wrote to House members Wednesday, adding that Congress should also “strengthen, not terminate, the EAC and ensure that the agency can perform its critical functions.”