Sen. Hillary Clinton didn’t just make history last week when she became the first woman with a serious chance of making it to the White House. She also became the first candidate to announce her intent to bypass public campaign financing in both the primaries and the general election.
By doing so, Clinton will forego $85 million in tax dollars to spend between the Democratic National Convention and the general election, should she win the nomination. In exchange, her campaign is free to raise and spend as much as they can — and chances are it will be much more than $85 million.
With total spending on the 2008 presidential campaign expected to spiral to more than a billion dollars, and with the public financing system coming undone, now’s a good time to examine the actual effects of public funding.
The experience of 2004, when both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry accepted public funds for the general election, should demonstrate that just because candidates can’t accept money doesn’t mean that money won’t be spent.
According to political watchdogs like the Center for Responsive
Politics’ site opensecrets.org, recent elections have seen hundreds of millions of dollars spent by party committees and “527 groups” – unaccountable organizations that aren’t regulated by the Federal
Election Commission and whose activities are harder to track.
When there’s a will to influence elections, the folks with the big bucks and the high-powered lawyers will find a way, even though Congress does periodically try to close loopholes. Meanwhile, with money shifted into shady political groups, transparency and public accountability are lost.
And let’s think about where public campaign funds would go: Do we really want our tax dollars used to support the negative rhetoric, the lies, and the distortions of modern political campaigns? Isn’t it better that each individual only pays for the candidates, issues, and tactics that they personally support?
Now, there’s merit to hearing all sides of a debate, and public financing often claims to level the political playing field. But you have to make it onto the field first.
Under federal law, a third party or independent candidate can’t even qualify for public funds unless they received 5 percent of the votes in the previous election. This essentially shuts out newcomers entirely.
Furthermore, even if funding is precisely matched between an incumbent candidate and challengers competing for his seat, the incumbent, by virtue of name recognition and political office, has the advantage.
Equalizing funding only reinforces an incumbent’s advantage.
There is another type of public funding: matching funds, where candidates get, for instance, $2 in public money for every $1 they raise from individuals. But this only multiplies the effect of money already raised in a system Americans overwhelmingly agree is already overrun with money.
It’s clear public financing won’t remove money from politics. It will make campaigns less transparent, less accountable and will provide advantages to incumbents and entrenched interests.
How do we get money out of politics, then? Basic economics tells us that, as the reach of government grows, so do the incentives to influence legislation or public policy. Either we can scale back government’s power and scope, or we can take the drastic and unprecedented step of curtailing freedom of speech.
Otherwise, public funding will just make an already unpleasant situation worse.
Seth Anthony is a chemistry masters student. His column appears occasionally in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.