Unalloyed good news is rare, so rejoice: The foremost achievement of the political speech regulators -- aka campaign finance ``reformers'' -- is collapsing. Taxpayer financing of presidential campaigns, which was in parlous condition in 2004, will die in 2008.
In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush declined public funding -- and its accompanying restrictions on raising and spending money -- for the primaries, as did Howard Dean and John Kerry in 2004. In 2004, candidates accepting taxpayer funding were restricted to spending $45 million before the conventions. Bush and Kerry raised $269.6 million and $234.6 million respectively before the conventions. Any candidate who accepts public funding in the 2008 primaries will be considered second-tier. And almost certainly neither party's nominee will accept public funding for the fall campaign.
Taxpayer funding, enacted in 1974, empowered taxpayers to direct, by a checkoff on their income tax forms, that $1 of their tax bill be used to fund presidential campaigns. Even though the checkoff did not increase anyone's tax bill, participation peaked in 1981 at 28.7 percent -- a landslide ``vote'' of 71.3 percent against it. In 1993 Congress increased the checkoff's value to $3, thereby enabling fewer people to divert more money from the government's pool of revenues collected from everyone, including the 90 percent of taxpayers who now decline to participate.
It is delicious that McCain-Feingold, the reformers' most recent handiwork, is helping kill taxpayer financing of presidential campaigns. Before McCain-Feingold, limits on contributions of private money -- set in 1974 and not indexed for inflation -- became steadily more restrictive, so candidates accepted public funding. But McCain-Feingold, by doubling the permissible size of campaign contributions, made it easier for candidates to raise sums far larger than taxpayer funding provides.
Public funding was supposed to increase voter turnout by decreasing the cynicism supposedly caused by privately financed politics. But Bradley Smith, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, notes that turnout did not surge until 2004. Then the dramatic increase correlated with a surge of private money, much of it devoted to voter turnout efforts. Reformers considered this surge evidence of increasing corruption and, of course, evidence of the need for more regulation of speech.
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