WASHINGTON—Iowa voters head to the state’s presidential caucus in less than a week, but none of the multiple Democratic candidates seeking their endorsement have tapped a federal program that offers millions of tax dollars to seekers of the nation’s highest office.
“Put simply, the Presidential Election Campaign Fund is a welfare program for politicians that’s doing nothing else but ballooning our deficit,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) told The Epoch Times on Jan. 28.
“Here we are kicking off a campaign year, very exciting; we’ve got all kinds of presidential candidates now in Iowa going through the caucus process,” Ernst said.
“So it really seems fitting that we highlight this area of federal spending while the public is interested in presidential politics. A lot of folks don’t even realize it exists, they may be checking off their box not really knowing what this campaign fund is or who uses it.”
Ernst noted that President George W. Bush in 2004 was the last winning presidential candidate to accept public funding for his campaign. Bush and his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) each received $75 million from the fund.
Three presidential campaigns have since passed without any of the major party candidates accepting public funding.
“So, we have this more than $350 million just sitting there in this campaign fund. We can apply that immediately to our debt. Does it solve our debt problem? No, it scratches it, but it’s still helpful,” Ernst said.
“That’s the pushback I get when I am focusing on Squeal. ‘It’s a couple hundred million dollars, what’s the big deal?’ Well, it’s a big deal in Iowa; that’s a lot of money to Iowans.”
Ernst succeeded former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) as the Senate’s leading foe of wasteful government spending.
The problem in the nation’s capital is that “we have to start somewhere. If you can’t make the decision to take a few hundred million dollars of savings, then how are you going to make the big decisions?” she said.
“Iowa taxpayers shouldn’t be footing the bill for failed presidential campaigns. Given the fact that not a single one of the candidates running for president this year have even asked for these funds, and no candidate that has taken the money has won in 16 years, I say we eliminate this unnecessary federal program and redirect these taxpayer dollars toward tackling our growing debt,” she said in a statement.
Ernst selected the fund as the recipient of her latest Squeal Award—given each month to outrageous examples of waste, fraud, and abuse in the federal government, discovered by her staff investigators. Her goal is to “cut wasteful spending and make Washington squeal.”
She has introduced a bill—the “Eliminating Leftover Expenses for Campaigns from Taxpayers (ELECT) Act of 2020”—to abolish the program. The Iowa Republican says the $356 million presently sitting in the fund should be devoted to reducing the national debt.
The program that was once the first bright hope of advocates for public funding of all federal campaigns has dwindled dramatically since its creation, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.
Soon after its creation, more than a fourth of all federal tax filers checked the box to contribute $3 to the fund in 1976, and it reached its participation peak in 1980, when nearly 30 percent of filers devoted $68 million.
But it’s been downhill ever since, with the last major party candidates to accept public funding being Republican presidential nominee John McCain and Sarah Palin, his vice-presidential running mate in the 2008 election. The $84 million for McCain and Palin was the largest funding ever awarded under the program.
President Barack Obama declined to accept public funding in 2008 and 2012, and neither President Donald Trump nor Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton did so in 2016. Only 10 percent of tax filers were checking the box for the fund by 2008.
While the fund was a major factor in campaigns for several decades, the big disincentive was the fact that candidates who accepted public funding had to decline all other contributions.
Thanks to the internet making it easier and cheaper to reach potential donors, and the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision removing many of the federal restraints on political expression through contributions, White House seekers can typically raise far more from private donors than they would get from the fund.
Contact Mark Tapscott at Mark.Tapscott@epochtimes.nyc