Public Financing For Presidential Candidates May End

Lawmakers in the House have voted to end public financing of presidential election campaigns. The vote was mainly along party lines.

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Public money for presidential candidates has been around since the 1970s. It's a program intended to balance the influence of big political donors. But in recent presidential campaigns, it has played a smaller role compared to private money, as campaign costs skyrocketed. Yesterday, as NPR's Peter Overby reports, the House voted to kill public financing.

PETER OVERBY: The bill to ax public financing came to the House floor via the Internet - specifically YouCut, a website where House Majority Leader Eric Cantor invites people to vote on targets for budget cutting. Cantor posted about the public financing system and got lots of hits, so he made it the first YouCut program to be voted on by the House.

Representative ERIC CANTOR (Republican, Virginia): Voting to end the presidential election campaign fund should be a no-brainer.

OVERBY: Public financing was the cornerstone of Watergate-era campaign finance reforms. It gave a critical boost of small donor money to Ronald Reagan, among others. But tax payers' support for the program has plummeted. Only a fourth as many tax payers check the box on their IRS returns now, as did when the program was at its peak in 1980.

Republicans said yesterday that public financing obviously hasn't cleaned up politics. And Dan Lungren of California said keeping it going would cost about $612 million over the next decade.

Representative DAN LUNGREN (Republican, California): Governing is choosing and prioritizing. This is $612 million that doesn't feed a single American, doesn't educate a single American.

OVERBY: So, the GOP argued, better to put the money into deficit reduction. Democrats were quick to tie their appeal bill to the gusher of undisclosed money in last year's midterm elections. Most of the hidden contributors gave to Republican advertising groups. Here's Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): We should come together to ensure that the American people are heard, that they are heard and that they are not drowned out by special interest dollars.

OVERBY: And Lynn Woolsey, of California, drew a connection to the way House Republicans handled the bill itself.

Representative LYNN WOOLSEY (Democrat, California): Keeping with the spirit of secrecy and lack of transparency, it's somehow fitting that this bill comes to the floor without any hearings, without any committee referral, without full debate or deliberation.

OVERBY: The debate was not as fiery as it might've been, say, a few weeks ago. It turned sharp only when President Obama's name came up.

In 2008, Mr. Obama became the first president to turn down public funds for both the primaries and the general election. He went on to raise nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars. But he has always supported public financing legislation and the White House came out against its repeal.

Illinois Republican, Aaron Schock, accused the president of what Schock called profound hypocrisy.

Representative AARON SCHOCK (Republican, Illinois): It was President Obama who killed it and made a mockery of public financing of president campaigns with his arrogant pressing of self advantage.

OVERBY: Democrat David Price of North Carolina responded.

Representative DAVID PRICE (Democrat, North Carolina): Talk about having it both ways. He comes onto this floor to condemn President Obama for opting out of the system, and then he proposes to abolish the system so that everybody has to opt out.

OVERBY: The bill passed mainly along party lines. Just 10 Democrats voted to abolish public financing, just one Republican voted to save it.

Michael Malbin is a political scientist, who several years ago, developed some proposals to revitalize public financing. He says there's a serious conversation that ought to happen.

Mr. MICHAEL MALBIN (Political scientist): The key question is whether any public financial system, a redesigned system, would serve good and is it a proper use of public funds.

OVERBY: But he says yesterday's vote tried to short circuit that conversation.

Meanwhile, Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, has introduced his version of the repeal bill in the chamber, where it faces an uncertain future.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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