Lyndon LaRouche wants some of your money—and why not? He got a half million dollars in 1980.
LaRouche is but the latest, albeit weirdest, in a parade of presidential candidates seeking campaign contributions from the Federal Election Commission. America's best-known adulterer, Gary Hart, recently collected $100,000 to do what "the people" won't—pay for his campaign.
On and on it goes, $5.7 million for George Bush here, $4.5 million for Bob Dole there. And these sums cover primary season alone. You don't even need opponents; in 1984, Ronald Reagan got subsidies of $10.1 million to finance his primary race against no one.
Once nominated, the Democratic and Republican candidates can collect $45 million each from the Treasury. In 1988, as in elections past, the federal government will be by far the largest contributor to the presidential candidates' coffers.
All of this largess is courtesy of a little con game perpetrated by the IRS, on instructions from Congress. On the first page of everyone's beloved 1040 form, there's a line that promises something for nothing. Check this box, it says, and contribute $1.00 to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund; it won't cost you a penny. A steady 23 percent of taxpayers fall for the con, a disappointingly low figure to the Common Causers who lust for 100-percent public election financing.
But nobody gets something for nothing, not even the U.S. Treasury. The $35 million or so a year that taxpayers designate for Gary Hart and Co. comes from the same folks who finance the rest of the federal budget. Us. Each dollar checked off for campaign financing either increases the deficit, so we pay in inflation or debt service, or—contrary to what it says on the tax form—raises taxes. (You don't honestly think they'd cut spending to make up the difference, now, do you?)
But, let's face it, the federal government is so big it could probably throw away $35 million a year without noticing. More is at stake than run-of-the-mill wasteful spending.
For starters, current campaign financing violates a fundamental principle of American democracy—freedom of conscience. As surely as if the FEC were giving out money to the Episcopal Church, this cockamamie way of paying for elections takes money from taxpayers and uses it directly to further beliefs they disagree with. In an election with two preacher candidates, this analogy is even less far-fetched.
Thanks to deficit financing, even if you dutifully tell the IRS no, you wind up footing the bill for Jesse Jackson's airline tickets and Pat Robertson's bumper stickers. And those who check yes have no control over who gets their money. (Originally, taxpayers could at least designate which party they wanted the buck to go to, but people understandably shied away from letting the IRS know their political views, and the system was changed.)
Sure, lots of federal spending indirectly fosters ideas some people dislike. But there is something especially galling about forcing the populace at large to foot the bill for campaigns that won't even succeed unless they can attract widespread support. If you really need the subsidy, you shouldn't be running for office in the first place.
But candidates do need the money, no matter how popular they are, because the same 1974 law that establishes subsidies puts a lid on how much money candidates can raise from people who actually believe in them. You can give $10,000 to your alma mater, your church, your local food bank, or your best friend. But you can't give $10,000 to Gary Hart, even if he is your best friend.
This restriction on people's voluntary support for political causes looks even more absurd when you consider that candidates can give unlimited amounts to their own campaigns. This exception was created in 1976 by a Supreme Court too wimpy to strike down the entire campaign finance law but smart enough to realize the constitutional problem created by forbidding people to use their own money to run for office.
Of course, politicos have found countless ways to get around financing laws—so many that Common Cause magazine manages to profile one every other issue. There's the "I am not a candidate even though I'm spending half my time making speeches in Iowa" trick. Noncandidates can accept up to $5,000 from an individual, five times as much as official candidates, plus they aren't subject to restrictions on who gives them the money or how much they spend.
Other loopholes let contributors give unlimited amounts to build party offices—or to build the party, through state and local activities. In August, for example, McDonald's heir Joan Kroc gave $1 million to the Democratic party. At the national level, it can keep only $20,000; the rest has to go to state and local groups. Kroc herself cares most about foreign policy, hardly a local issue except maybe in Santa Monica.
If a sneaky or inefficient way to finance a presidential (or senatorial or congressional) campaign exists, someone has discovered it. And how did candidates find all these loopholes? Why they hired lawyers, of course. Like the Internal Revenue Code, the election financing laws constitute a lawyers' employment act.
By putting campaigns on the federal dole, the laws also ensure high salaries for consultants, staff members, and assorted hangers-on. It's ironic that the same good-government types who decry enormous campaign expenditures support the very hand-outs that make them possible.
And FEC money acts as a loan guarantee for Chrysler-like campaigns. As Gary Hart has made abundantly clear, deficit spending is a way of life for politicians—and not only with the federal budget. Candidates borrow against expected matching funds, which they can receive to pay creditors even after they've dropped out of the race. And to make sure no candidates take full responsibility for their debts, the law actually prohibits them from spending more than $50,000 of their own money to pay their bills. Now that's a law we can expect never to be repealed.
There is more, much more, wrong with the way campaign financing is regulated. The law all but forces candidates to accept public funds, regardless of their principles, because it gives those who do take the money an overwhelming financial advantage. It deliberately discriminates against third-party or independent candidates and against upstarts who challenge incumbents. It traps grassroots groups and other activists in a web of picayune rules.
The net effect is to stifle political debate. "If we had had the federal election law, I do not think we could have done anything else close to what we did in 1968 in the challenge on the war," former Sen. Eugene McCarthy, perhaps the law's staunchest foe, told Congress in 1983. "It just would have been impossible to organize and to allow the volunteers to operate. Most everybody would have been in violation of the federal election act within two weeks."
Eight years from now, the FEC projects, federal coffers will run dry, so primary candidates won't get their full matching funds. As this D-day approaches, politicians, Common Cause, and other fans of the current morass of campaign financing laws will certainly call for an increase in the $1.00 checkoff. Make it $2.00, they'll say. That will cover everyone's expenses and protect the political process.
But it won't. Rather, it will protect only those who don't trust the electorate to make decisions without their interference. And it will continue to undermine the freedom of political expression that is the foundation of democracy.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Take the Money and Run".