Is the system for tax financed presidential campaigns "broken?" All the traditional "reformers" seem to think so. Common Cause calls it a "broken presidential public financing system." Democracy 21 agrees. Surveys show that three out of four name sponsors of McCain-Feingold/Shays-Meehan think the system is "broken." The Campaign Legal Center’s Meredith McGeehee thinks it is "broken." So does ElectionLaw blog’s Rick Hasen, and Michael Malbin of the Campaign Finance Institute (who, for good measure, is quoting a bona fide non-reformer, John Sweeney). If we believe Norm Ornstein, the system is "broken." We suppose we could go on.
But we wonder if "broken" is really the right word. In fact, the system works pretty much as intended. Qualified candidates collect private contributions in the primaries, and can get matching funds if they agree to limit their spending and comply with a few other requirements, such as an audit of their campaigns. The government then helps pay for major party conventions, according to the statutory plan, and then in the general the major party nominees, and in rare cases someone else, can get more tax money to run their campaign, so long as they again agree to limit spending and abide by a few other conditions. The only thing remotely "broken" about the system is that so few Americans (about 8%) check the box on their tax returns to fund the system that in many cases primary candidates can’t get their money until well after the first of the year, when current tax returns start rolling in. We suppose this might be considered a part of the system that is "broken" – though even this was actually a design feature of the system, which was intended to run on earmarked contributions by taxpayers – but it’s not usually the main complaint of the complainers. Their biggest complaint is that the amount of tax funds given out is insufficient, or too late, or comes with too many conditions, or maybe just the "wrong" conditions.
Is this what it means to be "broken?" Woefully "out-of-date," or fundamentally flawed, might be a better descriptions. We think that the difference is subtle but important. "Broken" suggests that something has changed in the system itself. "Out-of-date" suggests that something has changed outside the system, and "flawed" suggests that the system was never designed to successfully accomplish its goals.
One of the problems with taxpayer funded campaign systems is that they tend to be out-of-date. First, government often finds it tough to keep up with changes in the private sector. Second, incumbents elected under the system will not usually see any need to change it, so there is probably a built in inertia against updating tax financing systems. If incumbents begin to see the system as troubled, that suggests that they are finding it difficult to work with – any reforms they then pass will probably have a tendency to benefit them by addressing their concerns more than those of their challengers. In short, tax funding schemes for political campaigns will tend, over time, toward irrelevance at best and toward gumming up and biasing the system at worst.
It may be possible to develop a tax-funding plan that actually accomplishes its goals of promoting equality and preventing corruption or "undue" influence, but we’ve not really seen it work in practice. We think there is a reason that that is the case. Something that is relatively useless is not necessarily broken. It may just have a fundamental design flaw, or it may be attempting to address a problem that doesn’t exist, or it may be the wrong solution to the problem.
Something worth considering.