GIVING THE PUBLIC WHAT IT WANTS NEEDS

George Will notes the unpopularity of the presidential campaign fund and the hypocrisy of some Republicans who want to strengthen it:

From 1976 to 1993 a taxpayer using the checkoff dedicated $1 of his or her tax liability. But few taxpayers chose to participate. In 1976, only 27.5 percent of taxpayers did. Participation peaked in 1980 at 28.7 percent. By 1993 the rate was down to 14.5 percent, so Congress raised the checkoff to $3. This enabled fewer people to divert more money from the reservoir of revenues paid by all taxpayers.

Last year the participation rate was a paltry 11.25 percent. So now in Congress there is a move afoot to increase the checkoff again, perhaps to $10, so even fewer taxpayers can force all other taxpayers to contribute even more money for a purpose that 88.75 percent of taxpayers have made quite clear that they dislike.

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some Republicans, who would not recognize a principle if it were presented to them on a silver salver, have suddenly been seized by the thought that the presidential checkoff system should be strengthened. These Republicans, some of whom cannot see to next Thursday, think they can foresee the outcome of the 2004 election and the contours of the 2008 election. And they think they now see partisan advantage in public funding of presidential campaigns.

They think they know that George W. Bush will be re-elected, and that Hillary Clinton, with her star power and prodigious fund-raising abilities, will be the Democratic nominee in 2008. They think she might be able to raise upwards of $200 million—which is to say, perhaps as much as Bush will raise for the 2004 election. Horrors!

It is indeed amazing that most politicians, of whichever party, jettison their philosophy when it becomes inconvenient. The Republicans who took over Congress in the 1994 election promising to be fairer than the Democrats, limit their own terms, give more power to the minority party, not pass unfunded mandates on to the states, etc., etc. are now doing just the opposite now that doing so favors them.

This doesn’t surprise me in the least, but it’s somehow discouraging nonetheless.

FILED UNDER: US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Matthew says:

    I wonder how much of the decline in checkoffs can be attributed to people using tax preparer accountant services or software.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Interesting question. I know I never checked the box, just out of principle.

  3. John Ray says:

    I cannot find your email address on your page — makes it a bit hard for those who wish to submit Carnival entries. My submission is:

    http://dissectleft.blogspot.com/2003_08_10_dissectleft_archive.html#106089694894539357

    Possible blurb: John Ray has put up a good example of Leftist projection — the tendency to see your own faults in others.

    Please email me on jonjayray@hotmail.com to confirm that you have received this message.

    Cheers
    John Ray

  4. James Joyner says:

    JR,

    My e-mail address is hyperlinked in the signature block of each and every post…

    -James

  5. Such a lack of cynicism is unbecoming in post-adolescence…

  6. Gunther says:

    Will’s critique only makes sense if you read the entire article. I.E., he states that by checking off the $3 box on your tax returns, you aren’t really contributing an extra dollar of revenue to the presidential election fund. Rather, you are choosing to redirect $3 of your tax liability to the fund. In other words, revenue available to the government is reduced by $3 because it is redirected into the presidential fund, and thus isn’t available for other potential uses. Theoretically, this means that I have to subsidize trhe operation of a presidential election fund I don’t actually support.

    Suppose we try a thought experiment. Instead of supporting a presidential campaign fund, let’s imagine that all U.S. military funding was similarly funded. So, you’d have a box on you tax return asking if you’d like $500 of your tax liability to be directed towards military spending. The only money available for military spending would be a function of how many people checked “yes” on their tax return, multiplied by whatever amount (e.g., $500) the contribution was.

    In addition, suppose that over time, the number of people contributing to this military fund was reduced by half. To compensate for this, the government changes the amount of the contribution to $1000, thus stabilizing the net amount of money available. Wouldn’t you argue, to be consistent, that this is a case of fewer and fewer people forcing all other citizens to subsidize military expenditures even when they don’t support it? Would you argue that based on “principle”, the total amount of money available to the military would have to shrink (i.e, by restoring the individual contribution to its original value of $500) so that people choosing not to contribute to military spending were not put into this situation? Or would you instead take the view that in the interests of the public good, SOME military spending is necessary, and that therefore the amount of money available for military uses needs to be stabilized, even if it means that people who choose not to directly contribute to military spending are still indirectly subsidizing it?

    I think that the latter option is the more applicable in the case of public financing of presidential elections. Republicans may have ulterior motives for wanting to shore up the fund, as Will points out, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other, principled, reasons for wanting the fund to continue.

  7. James Joyner says:

    Gunther,

    Well, sure, reading the whole article is good. Which is why I linked it.

    I think funding the military–or any other government program–by a pseudo voluntary fund is a bad idea. If we’re going to publically fund elections–which I think is a bad idea and hence don’t check the box–then we should simply do it without the pretense that it’s “voluntary.” Whatever we decide is the appropriate level for military expenditures should, similarly, be an open figure.

  8. Gunther says:

    I agree, funding government programs (including the military) by this kind of fund is a bad idea. I also agree that the presidential fund is not really “voluntary” in any meaningful sense if the individual contribution rates can be manipulated like this. I’ll have to disagree with you about the merits of publicly funded elections, but then I grew up in Canada, so have uncontrollable socialist tendencies.

  9. Teri Lester says:

    Your comment about tax preparers and software is interesting. I am, among many other things, a professional tax preparer. I always ask people the question at the appropriate point, although I think the issue is hideous and I never check the box personally.

    I consider myself an extremely ethical person and I would never =NOT= check the box if the client wanted it checked. If they just say yes or no, we go on.

    If they ask me what I think, I mildly discourage it. I think it is total nonsense. The fact that the money doesn’t come out of your own personal refund is meaningless. The critical issues is that by checking the box, you are diverting funds from other government operations. While most of the rest of what the goverment does isn’t all that fabulous either, it makes no sense to effectively increase the total of government obligations by sending money to this campaign fund.

    I have been doing taxes for 20 years. I am not surprised at the statistics – my experience is also that a very, very small proportion of people decides to designate the $3.

    The interesting thing that I find is that people are very suspicious of the checkoff. Even people who can barely read Wills’ article intuitively know that when the government tells you something isn’t going to cost you anything, it’s probably not true.

    Since the checkoff was increased to $3, I find even fewer people willing to check it. I think that if it was raised to $5 or $10, people would not check it just because it is such a high figure. People are very emotional about their money. One of the most amazing things about doing tax preparation is that very little of it is about finance and most of it is about feelings. As a job, it is more like counseling than accounting.

    There are very few people at tax time who are feeling charitable towards the government.

    Frequently when someone tells me they don’t want to do the presidential checkoff, they do it with vehemence, and an obvious feeling that they are at least winning one round. I am pretty sure that if the amount was increased, participation would decrease even more.

    I suppose that they could make the checkoff amount so high that only 635 people checking it would fully fund the fund, but I don’t know if Congress is willing to be that blatant about it.