Buried in the massive Budget Reconciliation Act are a few lines changing the law on the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. This fund provides money to presidential candidates every four years. The money has been coming from a $1 "check-off" by taxpayers -- raised to $3 by the new law. A taxpayer who checks off doesn't add to his tax liability by a dollar or three, he just instructs the Treasury to turn over a dollar to candidates the Federal Election Commission (FEC) finds qualified.
No matter how much the nation may be in debt, no matter how much the budget for the year involved may be in deficit, the candidates (and their staffs, lawyers, advertising agencies, etc.) get the money. It is the ultimate -- and outrageous -- entitlement. We say that because the American people have indicated strong disapproval of this entitlement every year -- more so each year. A decade ago about 29-30 percent of taxpayers checked off on their 1040 forms. Put another way, 70 percent of tax filers "voted" against using Treasury funds for this purpose. Last year 83 percent voted no, and the FEC estimates that even fewer 1040 filers checked off this year than last and that fewer still will next year.
Why? Largely because the public has seen that the fund does not do what it set out to do -- which is to say, remove the influence of rich special interests from presidential politics. "No one could specify any of the benefits the program had produced that reflected its goals," concluded a marketing consultant after a series of focus groups discussed the campaign fund at the request of the FEC.
Many politicians (especially Democrats) obviously have not seen this as clearly as the public has. For example, Sen. Paul Sarbanes. When a Republican senator offered an amendment killing the proposed increase from $1 to $3, Senator Sarbanes was the only Democrat to respond. He said, "Well, of course, I support the public funding of presidential elections, and I think it is an important step forward that was achieved." No other Democrats spoke because it was late and they knew they had the votes. The amendment was voted down, with only one Democrat supporting it (and only one Republican opposing it).
We haven't seen John Q. Public and John Q. Congressman less in synch in some time. And it could get worse. Democrats in Congress want public funding for congressional candidates. President Clinton and most Senate Democrats support raising the check-off to $5 to pay for that.