Fair Elections Now Act is Welfare for Politicians

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · January 21, 2010

Arlington, Va.—First Congress bailed out the financial industry.  Then the auto industry.  And now—opportunistically latching on to today’s Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court ruling—Congress wants to spend tax dollars to bail out their own political campaigns under the so-called Fair Elections Now Act (FENA), which would create welfare for politician using tax dollars to help them fund their political campaigns. 

“The Fair Elections Now Act is the latest cash-for-clunkers program,” said Institute for Justice President Chip Mellor.  “The public should be outraged that in the wake of other budget-busting programs, Congress now wants to lavish the public’s money on themselves and their political campaigns so they no longer have to convince the public that their candidacies are worth supporting.  Simply put, public financing is just another way of trying to prevent anyone from acting as a check on what legislators do.”

For a brief and entertaining view on FENA, go to:  www.ij.org/FENAvideo.

Campaign finance “reformers” are pushing the Fair Elections Now Act (FENA), a bill that gives politicians money for nothing.  Under FENA, candidates who qualify get a grab bag of government goodies, including cash and political advertising vouchers that, for some candidates, could be worth millions.  FENA also forces television stations to give publicly financed candidates discounted advertising rates that are substantially below what their privately funded opponents have to pay.  And, if the candidate wants the government to fork over more cash, FENA is happy to oblige:  For every dollar the publicly financed candidate raises in additional contributions, the government will shell out four more.

“The so-called reformers complain that the Citizens United decision throws a monkey wrench in campaign finance law,” said IJ Senior Attorney Steve Simpson.  “They are absolutely correct—that monkey wrench is called the First Amendment.  But freedom of speech is not a problem that needs to be solved.  If Citizens United creates imbalances in the campaign finance system, the solution is to lift contribution limits, not create welfare for politicians.”

“The theory behind these public-financing schemes is that we have to preemptively shower politicians with money so they won’t succumb to temptation,” said Simpson.  “In other words, politicians are demanding that the American public ‘stop us before we’re corrupt again.’  But the way to prevent corruption is not to bribe our own lawmakers; it’s to limit the government’s power to hand out favors in the first place.  We need to get back to a government with limited powers and a tightly controlled purse.”

The politicians who are pushing FENA also claim that the bill will free candidates from having to engage in “incessant fundraising.”  But fundraising, far from being a nuisance, is one of the few times when a politician must actually talk to the public and show them why he deserves their support.  FENA would cut that link so that lazy, inept or unappealing candidates would no longer have to work hard or craft an attractive message or compile an impressive track record in order to run a competitive campaign.

“Campaigns are already publicly funded—members of the public give money to the candidates and issues that they agree with,” said Bill Maurer, an attorney with the Institute for Justice. “The more people who like a candidate, the more donations that candidate gets.  FENA would instead force the public to pay for a politician’s campaign whether they like it or not.”

The history of public financing in the states where it has been tried is not encouraging.  In states with public financing schemes—like Arizona, Maine and Connecticut—studies prove that citizens view their government more negatively and actually participate less than citizens in states with privately financed elections.  Candidates moved to the far fringes of their parties rather than meeting in the middle and campaigns attracted fewer minority candidates.

“The experience in the states has been that the extravagant promises of proponents have never materialized,” said Maurer.  “But the costs of public financing systems, both in terms of money spent and the distortion of the political process, have been real and substantial.  Americans should take that lesson to heart and reject a similar scheme nationwide.”

The Institute for Justice defends First Amendment rights and challenges campaign-finance laws nationwide.  In May 2009, the Institute secured a federal court ruling striking down Florida’s electioneering communications law, and IJ previously won a ruling in the Washington Supreme Court that stopped an attempt to regulate media commentary as “in-kind” political contributions.  IJ is a leading force against the public financing of elections and is currently challenging Arizona’s “Clean Elections” law that funds political campaigns with taxpayer dollars.