Friday, April 14, 2006

Earmark reform is the rage on Capitol Hill. With more than 10,000 earmarks going into budget bills, who can say that’s a bad idea? Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, has been out front on the issue, and the liberal “reform” groups that backed his crusade for campaign finance reform — which didn’t quite clean up Washington as advertised — have also called for earmark reform.

But there is one earmark that the reformers love — the federal government subsidy of presidential campaigns. The presidential campaign subsidy is not your usual earmark, in that it is written permanently into federal law. Each year, taxpayers can direct $3 of their federal income taxes to subsidize campaigns for president. Since 1976, more than $2.4 billion in current dollars has been earmarked this way.

In the great scheme of the $2.6 trillion federal budget, the roughly $60 million annual outlay to subsidize presidential campaigns is not much. But that’s the thing with earmarks — most are not that big in and of themselves, but a few million here and a few million more there, and they add up. Furthermore, as Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation says, “[earmarks] create a culture of government spending.”

It’s hard to imagine an earmark of less value than the presidential campaign fund. Over the years the presidential fund has paid for balloon drops at the national nominating conventions, and for negative TV ads. It has paid several million to support two presidential runs by Lenora Fulani of the now-defunct New Alliance Party, who last year said Jews “do the dirtiest work of capitalism, to function as mass murderers of people of color.” It also funded three presidential runs by John Hagelin of the now-defunct Natural Law Party, which based its platform on a call for more transcendental meditation. Lyndon LaRouche, convicted of mail fraud in 1988, has received millions in federal tax dollars for eight runs for president, one of them conducted from federal prison.

But it’s not just fringe candidates using your money. Tax dollars have also helped pay for the presidential campaigns of such long-forgotten “major” party figures as Larry Agran, Alan Cranston (who later retired from the U.S. Senate in some disgrace as a member of the “Keating Five”), Ruben Askew, Milton Schaap, Phil Crane, Fred Harris, and more recently, Gary Bauer and Dennis Kucinich.

Supporters of the system claim it reduces special interest influence and creates a “level playing field.” But few political observers believe our presidential races are more fair, less negative in tone, more lofty in rhetoric, less dominated by “special interests,” or producing better candidates than before the state starting using your tax dollars to subsidize negative ads.

Taxpayers seem to agree. After peaking near 30 percent in 1981, the percentage of tax filers who earmark their $3 to the fund has declined to less than 10 percent. Moreover, a Rasmussen Poll conducted last month for the Center for Competitive Politics found voters opposed public funding for campaigns by a margin of 59 percent against to just 26 percent in favor. From this we might conclude that it is time to end this earmark. Not so the reformers.

Instead, Mr. McCain and so-called “reform” groups are trying to put more taxpayer dollars into the system. But how to make this happen, when voters are increasingly reluctant to buy into this particular earmark?

One way, apparently, is to put the squeeze on private enterprise. Only 10 percent of individuals who file their taxes on paper earmark their $3 for the fund. Correspondingly, the nation’s largest tax preparation software producers, Intuit and H&R Block, for years used “no” as the default option in their tax software. After all, it is good business to make your software as convenient as possible for as many users as possible.

Last year, however, “reform” groups enlisted the chairman and vice chairman of the Federal Election Commission to lobby these producers to make it more difficult for taxpayers to check the “no” box.

As a result, both manufacturers agreed to end the popular “no” default. Further, both companies agreed to add language to their software saying, “The fund reduces candidates’ dependence on large contributions from individuals and groups and places candidates on equal footing in the general election.” The first part of the statement is questionable; the latter is flat-out wrong; both represent wishful thinking. Additionally, both manufacturers agreed to include new language emphasizing that earmarking funds will not raise one’s tax bill.

And of course it won’t — on the immediate tax return. But maybe voters are smarter than the reformers give them credit for. After all, the same is true of any other earmark. Voters understand, however, that the money has to come from somewhere, and if it’s being spent to subsidize the presidential campaigns of Larry Agran, Lyndon LaRouche and Lenore Fulani, it can’t be spent on Hurricane Katrina relief, body armor for troops, or anything else without offsetting budget cuts, tax increases or deficit spending. Eliminating the unpopular public funding earmark won’t eliminate public funding for campaigns — if it’s important, Congress can still appropriate the funds — but it will make these subsidies compete directly with other government priorities.

Not all earmarks are inherently bad. But too many earmarks are properly classified as “pork.” It seems to me the test of one’s credibility on earmark reform or restraint is the willingness to give up one’s own favorite earmark. If that is the correct barometer, it’s hard to take tax financing advocates seriously as principled reformers: “Earmarks for me, but not for thee,” is hardly a rallying cry for budgetary reform.

Bradley A. Smith, former Chairman of the Federal Election Commission, is senior adviser to the Center for Competitive Politics and a professor of law at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio.

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