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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) successfully attained unanimous consent on Tuesday to pass H.R. 2019, a House bill to end public funding for party conventions. The bill would authorize the money to instead be spent on a decade-long National Institutes of Health (NIH) pediatric health initiative, but would not actually appropriate the $12.6 million annually to that project.
In 1971, Congress created a system to publicly finance the general election portion of presidential elections. Three years later, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, Congress expanded this program to provide matching funds to presidential primary candidates who agree to abide by certain spending caps and to publicly fund most of the costs associated with the major parties’ quadrennial national conventions. These programs were funded by taxpayers who voluntarily check off a box on their annual federal income tax returns to designate a portion of their tax payments to the system. In elections from 1976 to 1996, major party candidates utilized the system and nominees were free to focus on campaigning rather than fundraising.
But the available public funds did not keep pace with the increasing costs of running a national campaign — and the changing realities of outside spending in U.S. elections. No major-party presidential nominee has accepted the primary matching funds since Al Gore (D) in 2000. No nominee has accepted public funding for the general election since John McCain (R) in 2008. In 2012, just three candidates (Libertarian Gary Johnson, Jill Stein of the Green Party, and Republican/Reform Party/Americans Elect candidate Buddy Roemer) received any public financing. But the public financing of political conventions was the one part of the system that remained largely in tact, as both the Democratic and Republican Parties accepted nearly $18 million each for their 2012 conventions — money that would otherwise have been raised from moneyed political interests groups and wealthy donors.
In 2011, after regaining a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, Republicans moved to end all remnants of the once-successful public financing system. A bill to simply eliminate the entire system passed the House, 239 to 160 but did not come up in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) argued that public financing was no longer necessary in the age of Internet fundraising; President Obama opposed the proposal, noting it would “expand the power of corporations and special interests in the Nation’s elections,” would “force many candidates into an endless cycle of fundraising at the expense of engagement with voters on the issues,” and would “place a premium on access to large donor or special interest support, narrowing the field of otherwise worthy candidates.”
Last year, Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS) introduced H.R. 2019, a bill to eliminate just the convention funding portion of the system and to earmark the savings for children’s medical research. Harper called the bill the “Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act,” after a young cancer victim. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) praised the bill as an example of “putting pediatric research over politics.”
The bill passed the House in December, 295 to 103, despite opposition from groups including Common Cause, the Campaign Legal Center, and the League of Women Voters. In a letter to colleagues, Reps. Nita Lowey (D-NY), Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Henry Waxman (D-CA), and Frank Pallone (D-NJ) noted that the bill would authorize funds to NIH, but only if the modest savings are specifically appropriated for that purpose. The bill does not go that second step, meaning no funds transfer will result. The institutes’ funding was reduced by more than $1.5 billion in 2013 due to the sequestration provisions of the Budget Control Act of 2011.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) did not object to McConnell’s request on Tuesday, but urged his GOP colleagues to “join us increasing funding for the National Institutes of Health” and to ensure that the funds saved under the bill are actually appropriated to NIH.
The bill now goes to President Obama for his consideration. In a statement, Common Cause President Miles Rapoport urged a veto on the bill, writing, “Rather than further dismantling our broken presidential public financing system, and strengthening the power of big money donors in the bargain, Congress and the administration should focus on fixing the system and extending it to congressional races so that all candidates in 2016 will want to use it.”
Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, told ThinkProgress that the vote was disappointing, but not a surprise. “It’s like a car that was a good car in the seventies, but no one will let you do maintenance. Then when the car falls apart, they say ‘What a terrible car!’ You’re left with a system that hasn’t been updated for the 21st century, then they all point fingers and say it’s not working.”