Why an unused government fund just grew by $8.3 million and why you can’t have the money back

Why an unused government fund just grew by $8.3 million and why you can’t have the money back
Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen.

An unused government fund intended to pay for presidential elections grew by nearly $8.3 million in April — and the taxpayer-funded money will now sit untouched in a bureaucratic black hole for what could be years or even decades, according to a Raw Story analysis of U.S. Treasury records.

The Presidential Election Campaign Fund has now ballooned to $442.7 million as of April 30, Treasury records show.

A once-popular resource for White House aspirants, the fund hasn’t been used regularly in 15 years — but taxpayers continue checking a $3 check box that they encounter when filing their annual tax returns by the April deadline. Even though less than 4 percent of taxpayers checked the box in recent years, the fund continues to grow by tens of millions of dollars annually.

But as the fund continues to climb toward half a billion dollars, politicians and nonprofits have ideas for how to reform the nation’s obsolete public campaign financing policies or simply reallocate the idled money.

Among them is Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), who told Raw Story the money could be used to help close the nation’s budget gap.

“It's just sitting there … This is just a small effort on many other efforts that we have in trying to tackle this budget,” Ernst said. “You’ve just got to get out there and raise money if you're gonna play, so why do we do this?”

Nonprofits could benefit from the money that’s sitting in the fund, said Rick Cohen, chief communications officer and chief operating officer for the National Council of Nonprofits. While the Council is focusing much of its tax policy efforts on getting the universal charitable deduction back after it expired in 2021, the hundreds of millions of dollars in the Presidential Election Campaign Fund could help numerous charities.

“Every dollar can make a big difference for people who rely on nonprofits,” Cohen said. “It may seem like a small amount when it comes to the government's budget, but 90% of the sector has less than a $1 million budget every year. You could double the budget of 500 nonprofit organizations and still have more to go around.”

Cohen said it would be great to see a tax form checkoff box for donating to charities like Colorado has that allows taxpayers to donate their return to nonprofits.

“It's very similar to that checkbox for the Presidential Election Fund, where they can check a box and say, ‘I want to donate a portion of my return to this charity,’ which is a great thing,” Cohen said. “It makes it that much simpler, and it's when people are having additional money coming to them.”

President Barack Obama, as a presidential candidate in 2008, declined to take Presidential Election Campaign Fund money, helping to effectively kill the nation's system of publicly financing presidential elections. (Shutterstock)

Why do no candidates want the money?

It wasn’t until the 2012 presidential election that candidates all but stopped using the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. From the 1976 presidential election through the 2004 election, parties’ nominees would accept public funding for the general election.

But in 2008, Democratic nominee Barack Obama broke the trend and opted not to accept general election public funds — with Republicans accusing him of breaking a promise in the process.

Prior to that, some candidates opted not to use the fund for presidential primaries, such as Democrat John Kerry and Republican George W. Bush in 2004, and Bush in 2000.

And neither President Joe Biden, a Democrat, nor any Republican presidential hopefuls, including former President Donald Trump, have any plans to use the fund ahead of Election 2024.

Why did the fund fall out of fashion?

“The basic reason is the system comes with a spending cap, and those amounts are very small by today's presidential election cost standards, so essentially, if you're a strong candidate, if you know you can raise hundreds of millions of dollars, it would not be a rational choice to participate in the program,” said Ian Vandewalker, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s elections and government program.

“Candidates can raise more and probably need to raise more to be competitive in a campaign. There's also issues about how early the primaries are now, and when the first disbursement is and whether you run out of primary money before you officially get nominated.”

During the early 2000s, “one could say that the fund was dying,” said Bradley A. Smith, a professor at Capital University Law School who served on the Federal Election Commission from 2000 to 2005, including one year as chairman. “You might say that it was starting to break up during that period at the beginning of the century.”

Back when candidates were using the fund regularly, having too little money to go around — not too much — was the problem. This necessitated candidates to borrow to keep their campaigns afloat until the fund was replenished after Tax Day, Smith said.

The majority of taxpayers have always chosen not to select the $3 checkoff box, but without any major candidate tapping it recently, the fund has now recovered and grown to its $442.7 million balance — its largest balance ever.

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein is one of the few presidential candidates to use Presidential Election Campaign Fund money during the past 15 years. Jim Young/Reuters

During the 2012 and 2016 elections, just four candidates — Republican Buddy Roemer, Democrat Martin O’Malley, Green Jill Stein and Libertarian Gary Johnson — together received about $3 million for their primary campaigns, and no one took money for the general election. In 2020, no candidates at all accepted funds for the primaries or the general election, according to FEC records.

Keep the $442 million in place?

Nevertheless, not everyone would like to see the $442 million in available public presidential campaign funding used for some other purpose.

“I think the Democrats realize nobody's using the fund, but it's almost like the dream is still there,” Smith said. “If the fund’s abolished completely, then you’ve got to reestablish the whole thing and pass on new legislation, whereas now, I think there's this hope that maybe it can spring back to life. They can amend it to get more money to the fund.”

Reforming the public campaign financing system to keep it alive is a viable option, some nonprofits argue. The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute affiliated with New York University School of Law, is pushing for a model of public financing based on small donor contributions, which would be matched by a multiplier. This model has been seen on the state level in places like New York where small donations are matched at a six-to-one ratio.

Nonprofit government reform group Common Cause supports citizen-funded elections, too, including campaign funding vouchers. Common Cause said it would prefer to see the current presidential public financing system modernized rather than see the fund emptied.

“The disclosure laws and regulations have not kept pace at all with outside spending,” said Stephen Spaulding, vice president of policy and external affairs at Common Cause. “A significant percentage of money comes through ‘dark money’ groups that don't have to disclose where the money is coming from, and so voters are left in the dark, and this sort of secret spending is really dangerous for democracy because it means that you're no longer able to follow the money.”

The Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission significantly contributed to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund’s current state of affairs as an unused resource.

The ruling overturned key campaign finance restrictions and allowed corporations and outside groups, including certain nonprofit organizations, to raise and spend unlimited money to advocate for or against political candidates.

“That's part of what generates this arms race mentality that drives people to look for the biggest donors. It doesn't have to be that way,” Vandewalker said. “We would support reforming the program to update it for the realities of campaigning today, which would mean larger grant amounts, potentially no spending cap and a multiple match system as opposed to what exists today.”

Another supporter of public campaign funding reforms is Ann Ravel, who served as an FEC commissioner from 2013 to 2017, including one year as the commission’s chairwoman.

“The thing about the idea of having the public funding of elections is in part because it's important that people just don't rely on donors or corporations and all of the unbelievable amount of money that's been spent in elections, and instead, hopefully, the idea is that more varied candidates can run and get some money in order to do it,” Ravel told Raw Story.

Restrictions, restrictions

For any 2024 presidential candidate who choses to use the nation’s public campaign matching fund, such as it is today, they’ll face significant headaches.

To access public funds, they’d need to obtain a minimum of 20 contributors in each of at least 20 states, raising at least $5,000 per state. The fund matches the first $250 of individual contributions during the primary campaign.

They’d also be required to limit personal spending on their campaign to $50,000 and limit their overall campaign spending.

Spending limits for the 2024 election haven’t been set yet and likely won’t until later this year or early 2024, according to Myles Martin, a public affairs specialist for the FEC.

“To my knowledge, I don't think anyone has submitted any applications for matching funds yet, and the general election grants that would be available to major party nominees, neither party has used those in recent years,” Martin said.

Changes to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund

Until 2014, the Presidential Election Campaign Fund also provided funding for the Democratic and Republican national conventions. In 2012, each convention received $18,248,300.

“The fact was that there was so much public money being spent on the conventions, and I guess the view then, and it probably is still the case, was that it made those conventions into shows,” Ravel said. “A lot of money was spent to entice people to go and watch and make it be like some big event.”

In 2014, Obama signed legislation that would stop the public funding of conventions. Instead, the money was reallocated to the National Institutes of Health to fund the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act, a 10-year initiative funding pediatric research. The last disbursement of the Presidential Election Campaign Fund was to the NIH in 2020 for $736,000 for the Kids First initiative.

With the funding set to end in 2023, Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-VA) introduced the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act 2.0 in January 2021, which passed the House but didn’t pass into law. The Act calls for dedicating $25 million annually to the research initiative from 2023 to 2027.

“Advancing this legislation has been a top priority since I first came to Congress … I’m proud to see our hard work paying off and am eager to continue our efforts to get this bipartisan bill to the President’s desk,” Wexton said in a press release.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) is one of the bill’s 110 co-sponsors, and he also introduced in January 2023 the Strengthen the Pediatric Research Initiative Act that calls for eliminating the Presidential Election Campaign Fund altogether and transferring the remaining funds into pediatric research.

"There is nothing of greater importance than finding cures for childhood cancers and other deadly diseases," Cole said in a press release. "Although Congress has made significant strides throughout the last decade to provide the funding to find these lifesaving cures, there is much more work to be done still. I'm proud to introduce the Strengthen the Pediatric Research Initiative Act to redirect this money from political campaigns toward this worthy cause."

Spaulding, of Common Cause, said he was cynical of the motivations behind the Strengthen the Pediatric Research Initiative Act’s call to reallocate the fund.

“No question that we should be investing in health research, in ending cancer, in making advances in science, that's no question. I think it's a bit of a false choice to say that we have to do one or the other. We can do both. We can repair a presidential public financing system, which worked well for decades, and at the same time, continue to invest in science,” Spaulding said.

Smith, a Republican, said the GOP is angling to repeal the system under the guise of supporting causes most people support, such as helping children or cancer research.

“It’s really a relatively small amount, and it just always strikes me as gimmicky. I think they probably actually hurt support for repealing it … why not just say we want to repeal this because we don't think it does any good, and we think it's wasting a couple hundred million bucks a year?” Smith said. “To most people, a couple hundred million sounds like a lot of money. To a U.S. senator in Washington, a couple hundred million, that's chump change … But to your average citizen out in Omaha, $200 million still sounds like a lot of money.”

For the 2024 election, where presidential candidates in the primary and general elections are expected to collectively raise billions of dollars, experts agreed that the money is likely to continue sitting in the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, unused for any purpose.

“To take the money almost is like putting a sign up saying, ‘I don't think I can win,’” said Smith, who also serves as chairman of the nonprofit Institute for Free Speech, which opposes many campaign finance regulations. “If you're running against Joe Biden … you know you’ve got to spend a lot of money, a lot more than you're going to get from the matching funds program, and the same thing on the Republican side. If you're going to match Trump or even [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis, who's sitting on a huge war chest, not all of which he can convert directly into running, but he's got huge fundraising capabilities, obviously, you have to realize that the matching funds program just probably is not going to give you enough to do it.”

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on April 17, 2023, and has been updated to reflect changes in the Presidential Election Campaign Fund’s cash balance and related political developments.

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