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Pricing the Fair Elections Now Act

By Dylan Matthews

One last thing on the Fair Elections Now Act: Given as it's a public financing plan, it costs money. Not a lot of money, but enough to make deficit hysteria a viable excuse for lawmakers who want to oppose it anyway. The bill provides $900,000 per campaign to House candidates, and $1.25 million to Senate candidates, plus $250,000 per congressional district in their state. I did some back-of-the envelope math, and assuming two candidates in every race in the country -- all 435 in the House, all 36 (an unusually high number due to special elections) in the Senate -- qualify for funding, that adds up to $1.045 billion in funding per election cycle.

Of course, that number will be much lower in practice, because many campaigns will opt out, or not qualify, and that cost is over two years, meaning it's yearly budgetary impact is only half as big. But the actual cost of a bill has never gotten in the way of would-be deficit hawks' desire to kill spending proposals in the past, and I doubt it would here either.

-- Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at The Washington Post.

By Washington Post editor  |  July 8, 2010; 9:23 AM ET
Categories:  Congress  
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Comments

Harvard boy has found another way to waste other people's money in service to the almighty state.

How much money are you blowing on that education, and that's the idiocy you come up with?

Posted by: msoja | July 8, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

How much in pork and promises do candidates end up paying out over a term to reward their big-moneyed benefactors? What's the back-of-the-envelope calculation for how much THAT increases the deficit?

Posted by: gerbilsbite | July 8, 2010 10:17 AM | Report abuse

Note that the first two right wing posts in this comment thread are contradictory. The first implies that any government spending, even trivial spending to reduce government corruption, is terrible. The second is utterly off topic but it implies that government corruption is a far more important topic to spend column inches on than legislation to reduce government corruption. (Bonus! The second post is also self-contradictory!)

And as to the second point, search through Ezra's posts and you'll find many explaining that pork barrel projects are a trivial portion of the budget, especially compared to health care and defense. Also, they aren't necessarily worthless but they are an inefficient way to allocate funds. If you want to find a blog that only ever discusses corruption and inefficient budgeting, Ezra and Dylan aren't for you, but why bring this complaint here?

Posted by: dfhoughton | July 8, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

The price of this ABOMINATION that Ezra fails to mention is the First Amendment---the right of average citizens to pool their money and make a meaningful effect on elections that isn't controlled by corrupt party politics and the editorial boards of newspapers like the Chicago paper that allowes David Axelrod to deliver favorable editorial coverage to Blago!

Ezra you are a criminal for supporting THIS underhanded effort to shut down the RIGHT of groups to be able to transmit dispararging information of public officials by average citizens who pool their money like NAACP, Sierra Club, NRA, etc.,.etc.,.

Oh yeah and the ability to prevent corrupt teamster bosses or SEIU thugs who beat up aging Tea Party parents at rallies from disguising their baltantly corrupt payoffs to the politicians in their pocket who dole out tax payer money by the billions to the bosses!!!

Yes Ezra you are a criminal. Do you have a conscience?

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | July 8, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

I beleive the First Amendment gives me and my neighbors a right to pool our money and buy our own full page ad in NY Times, or 5 minutes of NBC time to criticize the President of the United States of America.

Every official who supports this effort to try and destroy this right is an un-American traitor to this nation and it is a betrayal of our 200+ year legacy of liberty.

The notion of eliminating the first amendment by Supreme Court appointments is the most ornery development in US politics I have ever seen!

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | July 8, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

--"How much in pork and promises do candidates end up paying out [...]"--

Ah, it's the another-wrong-makes-it-right argument.

If politicians refused to inject themselves into the private lives and businesses of free citizens, there would be no market in trying to buy their influence and power. The Constitution was supposed to be the law that kept power mongers from plying their trade as our politicians do, but the worms have wriggled their way around it. It's beginning to look like the citizens need to take it back to square one and more fully limit the state's power.

Posted by: msoja | July 8, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

Every single soul on the left who does not think that the first amendment does not guarantee that me and my neighbors can pool our money and buy five minutes of air time to criticize a politician seeking office is a short-sighted idiot who does not understand what the USA is all about!

That anyone can support this legislation at all shows the sad state of this nation!

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | July 8, 2010 11:58 AM | Report abuse

This law does not protect our democracy from monied interests. It hands it to them on a silver platter.

After this law is passed, all election-affecting political speech will be controlled by a party machines and editorial boards.

Ready for government by Soros vs. Murdoch instead of by the people?

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | July 8, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Are you really advocating for a law which forces taxpayers to give money to candidates they do not support?

Posted by: kingstu01 | July 8, 2010 12:21 PM | Report abuse

FastEddieO007: Please read the law. The Fair Elections Now Act does nothing to inhibit your right to pool your money with others and take out ads. It is only an opt-in program for candidates who wish to participate. It does not address any issues regarding non-candidate spending. It does not involve any government monitoring of speech. It is purely a funding mechanism for those who can demonstrate a base level of public support. That is all.

Please understand what the law does before making claims that are simply incorrect.

Posted by: dasimon | July 8, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

kingstu01: "Are you really advocating for a law which forces taxpayers to give money to candidates they do not support?"

First, we've had that under the presidential funding system since Watergate, and there haven't been major complaints.

Second, other people's taxpayer money would go to candidates that they do support, so it would essentially be a wash.

Third, what are the alternatives? Politicians can take the public's money or they can take Exxon's, ADM's, and Goldman Saks's money. Given that option, I think most of us would rather have them take our money (though you may disagree).

Fourth, if freeing our politicians from private money allows them the freedom to cut back on things like corporate welfare, then we might even wind up saving taxpayer money overall.

Finally, it's cheap. Given about 213 million eligible voters, it comes out to $4.86 per eligible voter per year if Dylan's numbers are correct. I think most people would be willing to pay that to free their representatives from private interests (whether they be corporations or unions and trial lawyers) even if it means that some portion will go to candidates they don't personally support.

And my tax money goes to lots and lots of things I don't support. I don't have veto power. That's life in a democracy.

Posted by: dasimon | July 8, 2010 1:48 PM | Report abuse

A few corrections for dasimon:

1. The presidential funding system only uses money designated by taxpayers for that purpose via the checkoff.

2. Goldman Sachs, Exxon, and ADM can't contribute to candidates, only people - some of whom may work for these entities, just as some of them are schoolteachers, lawyers, doctors, etc.

3. There's no evidence that elected officials behave any differently in office if they are elected with taxpayer dollars rather than private dollars.

The fact is, these schemes fail to do anything, other than siphon taxpayer dollars away from real priorities and into the campaign coffers of politicians.

Sean Parnell
President
Center for Competitive Politics
http://www.campaignfreedom.org

Posted by: seanparnell | July 9, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

Also, Dylan, you've underestimated the cost because the bill also provides a 4:1 match for contributions of $100 or less raised by candidates.

In truth, nobody knows the cost, but a good range is anywhere from a few hundred million to a couple of billion. Some of us still remember when that was more than pocket change for Uncle Sam.

Sean Parnell
President
Center for Competitive Politics
http://www.campaignfreedom.org

Posted by: seanparnell | July 9, 2010 12:01 PM | Report abuse

seanparnell:

"A few corrections for dasimon:

"The presidential funding system only uses money designated by taxpayers for that purpose via the checkoff."

I don't see how that is a "correction" since I never asserted anything otherwise.

"2. Goldman Sachs, Exxon, and ADM can't contribute to candidates, only people - some of whom may work for these entities, just as some of them are schoolteachers, lawyers, doctors, etc."

Again, I never asserted anything to the contrary, so it's not a correction. However, one should look and see whether certain industries pool their contributions in an attempt to gain access and/or wield influence. (Don't financial sector contributions far outweigh contributions by teachers, even though there are more teachers than financiers?) Moreover, their PACs certainly can and do contribute to candidates.

"3. There's no evidence that elected officials behave any differently in office if they are elected with taxpayer dollars rather than private dollars."

I can tell you one way elected officials behave differently: they don't have to spend a third of their time raising money. That alone would make public financing worthwhile--so they could do the job they were elected to do.

And I would at least like to see if Congress would end some corporate welfare if we had a different funding system. I don't think the arguments about things like not allowing Medicare to bargain for prescription drugs hold up. If a robust public finance system doesn't change things like that, I'd be open to changing it back. But shouldn't we find out first?

"The fact is, these schemes fail to do anything, other than siphon taxpayer dollars away from real priorities and into the campaign coffers of politicians."

Again, not true since such "schemes" would allow (and create an incentive for) politicians to spend time focusing on their constituents instead of on the phone with people like me constantly asking for money.

And, as Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig points out, the fundamental problem with our present system is that people think results can be bought, whether they actually are or not. Private funding is tremendously corrosive of trust in government. We've seen it in the health care debate, the financial services reform debate, the energy bill debate: people look at where the campaign money is coming from. It's time to change that.

"In truth, nobody knows the cost..."

Even a minimal amount of investigation allows for a ballpark figure. The totals for all fundraising by presidential candidates (including primaries), Senate and House candidates, national party committees, and 527 organizations are easily available online (see www.opensecrets.org, for one, which uses FEC data). Taking the presidential numbers and dividing by 4 and all the other numbers by 2, you get about $8.78 per eligible voter per year. I'd say that's pretty cheap to help restore public faith in government.

Posted by: dasimon | July 10, 2010 2:18 AM | Report abuse

Addendum: I suggest that anyone interested in this subject watch Prof. Lessig's presentation on the issue at http://blip.tv/file/2191084. Whether one agrees or disagrees with him, it's 16 minutes well-spent.

I also find it somewhat ironic that the Center for Competitive Politics opposes measures that would increase, well, political competition. One of the great inhibitors to competition is barriers to entry, and one of the great barriers to entry for major political contests is money. Richard Lugar ran essentially uncontested for Senate in 2006; Democrats seemed unable to find anyone in the entire state willing to run against him even in a Democratic wave cycle. Now, its understandable that no one wanted to go up against a very popular incumbent. But part of the disincentive to run is the need to raise tens of millions of dollars to have a real contest. Same is true in New York, where neither senator is facing top-tier opposition even though one was considered vulnerable especially in this cycle where Republicans have the advantage. And part of the problem is the tens of millions of dollars it takes to campaign in New York, especially when the incumbents already have vast war chests.

Today, in large part, one has to be wealthy or have connections to a lot of wealthy people to run for office. As a result, there are races for the second highest elected offices in the land that are going essentially uncontested. A public funding system allows more people to run; the state examples are full of candidates who said they would never have run absent access to such systems. Even if they didn't beat incumbents (some of whom may have also opted into the public system), they at least gave people a choice. A democracy should consider that a valuable improvement, regardless of whether it leads to better laws. A system that gives more people a chance is in my opinion far preferable than one that allows incumbents to coast to victory unopposed. I like competition in politics, and I think the Fair Elections Now Act would help provide more of it on the federal level.

Posted by: dasimon | July 10, 2010 3:37 PM | Report abuse

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