Washington. -- The widespread impression that Congress' cruelly indiscriminate parsimony is menacing even entitlements was refuted last week when a Senate majority prevented the proposed elimination of an entitlement program. The moral sheen of this action may be tarnished somewhat by the fact that it is an entitlement for politicians, funded in a mendacious manner.
Ten "moderate" Republicans joined all 46 Democrats to preserve taxpayer financing of presidential campaigns. The Budget Committee had projected saving up to $300 million by eliminating such financing after the 1996 election, en route to a balanced budget by 2002.
Government funding of presidential campaigns was enacted in 1974, five elections ago, as a post-Watergate bow to morality. Some bow; some morality. It has been financed by a "check-off" system whereby taxpayers indicate on tax forms their desire to have $1 of their tax payment diverted for that purpose.
At least it was initially a $1 "contribution" (more about that word anon). But a large majority of taxpayers has always spurned the check-off, and the minority that has used it has declined from a peak of 28.7 percent of taxpayers in 1980 to 14.5 percent in 1993. As Republican Party Chairman Haley Barbour says, taxpayers vote on public financing every April 15, and every year it loses in a landslide larger than the one before.
By 1993 there was not enough money coming in from the check-off, so in 1993 Congress made it a $3 check-off. As a result, although participation declined that year from 18.9 percent to 14.5 percent of taxpayers, "receipts" -- more about that word anon -- rose from $27.6 million to $71.3 million.
The Federal Election Commission estimates that the decline of participation continues and that 1994 receipts will be down to $68 million. Not to worry. The $3 check-off probably will be increased as often and as much as necessary to preserve this demonstrably unpopular entitlement.
The people who use the check-off (supposedly because they think it serves democratic values) would be more conspicuously virtuous if it actually cost them something. But it does not add even a penny to their tax bills. It does not increase government receipts. The check-off system is a bookkeeping dodge to create government financing of campaigns without risking the public's wrath by straightforwardly voting an appropriation. The check-off involves not voluntary "contributions" but rather a diversion of scores of millions of dollars of general revenues to an unpopular program.
Senate defenders of this politicians' entitlement argue that the non-participation of most taxpayers does not prove that unpopularity. Very well, let them demonstrate the courage of their conviction. If they will not do so by voting an honest appropriation, they should at least allow the dwindling minority of check-off participants to demonstrate the depth of their conviction that public financing of presidential campaigns is virtuous. Congress should make the check-off not a diversion of general revenues but an addition to the participating taxpayers' tax bills. Then the only questions would be how much even a $3 cost would accelerate the decline of participation, and how far and fast the check-off sum would have to rise as participation evaporated.
Until that is done, the system will continue to commit what Jefferson considered a fundamental injustice, conscripting people into paying for the dissemination of doctrines with which many of them disagree. And more than just the doctrines of the two major parties are involved.
Last year Lyndon LaRouche received federal matching funds for the campaign he ran from a prison cell while serving a 15-year sentence for fraud. Lenora Fulani, a leftist who has run under various banners, has received a total of $3.5 million for the 1984, 1988 and 1992 elections even though her support never reached 1 percent. In 1992 she qualified for matching funds before George Bush or Bill Clinton -- your tax dollars at work under the "voluntary" system of "contributions."
Some senators preserved this system because they believe privately funded campaigns lead to corruption. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who chairs the Ethics Committee and who favors ending the check-off system, tartly reminded such senators that their campaigns are privately funded and "you are bound, under Senate rules, to report any corruption to the Ethics Committee." So far, the silence is deafening.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.