Just as it voted to repeal healthcare reform without first holding hearings, the new Republican majority in the House is rushing to repeal the system of public financing of presidential campaigns. The vote, scheduled for Wednesday, is designed to show that Republicans are serious about cutting government spending. Public financing does deserve another legislative look 35 years after it was first used to diminish candidates' reliance on large donors and special-interest groups, but it shouldn't be the victim of a stampede.
Currently, presidential candidates are eligible for public funds to pay for their campaigns in exchange for an agreement to abide by spending limits. As several campaign reform groups pointed out in a letter to members of the House, every Republican presidential nominee from 1976 to 2008 used the public financing system to fund his general election campaign, as did every Democratic nominee except Barack Obama.
They also argued that public financing has served to increase the number of viable candidates and to promote competition. They cited the example of Ronald Reagan, who "was able to capitalize on his small-donor fundraising capacity to accrue substantial sums of public money." Reagan wasn't the only candidate to leverage private contributions to obtain public funding — and visibility.
Nevertheless, problems with the system have developed over time. One is that the payments are so low that they discourage participation in the program. Another is that candidates can raise sufficient funds without having to abide by the spending limits that come with public funds. That explains Obama's decision to refuse public funding. Finally, the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case has made expenditure limits less important; even if a campaign abides by limits, the candidates' allies will be able to flood the airwaves.
All of these developments have inspired a major rethinking among campaign reform advocates. One result is legislation proposed by Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and David E. Price (D-N.C.) that would end spending limits but increase the role of small donors by giving candidates a 4-to-1 match for contributions of $200 or less. That proposal and others, including abolition of public financing, deserve a fair hearing before the 2012 campaign begins in earnest. Meanwhile, the House should leave the present system alone.