The House today approved legislation that would end public financing of presidential campaigns by eliminating the option taxpayers have to donate $3 of their tax payments to a presidential campaign fund.
A day after President Obama asked both parties to work together during his State of the Union address, the bill, H.R. 359, was approved by party-line 239-160 vote following some very contentious debate.
Republicans said the issue is simple. Eliminating the $3 checkoff option on tax returns would mean $617 million over 10 years could be directed to the general fund of the Treasury. They also said it would still give people the option of donating money to any presidential campaign of their choice.
House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) added that only seven percent of taxpayers check the box, down from a high of nearly 30 percent 30 years ago. He and other Republicans also cited Obama's call last night to eliminate "whatever we can honestly afford to do without" in order to reduce the budget deficit.
"In an era when we have to make genuinely hard decisions, to me this is a no brainer," Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said on the floor.
Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), tried unsuccessfully to turn the vote into a broader debate about campaign finance reform, and argued that ending the $3 voluntary donation would increase corporate influences in campaigns going forward.
Many Democrats added that the bill compounds what they see as a flawed Supreme Court decision in last year's Citizens United case. Pelosi, Ranking Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and others said the result of that case was to "open the floodgates" of corporate money into federal campaigns, and said today's bill would only make it worse.
Republicans have rejected this interpretation of Citizens United, arguing that the decision removed the ban on corporate and union advocacy, but kept in place a ban on direct corporate donations to candidates. Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), who chairs the Committee on House Administration, said it is a "canard" to say H.R. 359 would lead to new inflows of secret corporate money to campaigns.
Other Democrats, notably Budget Committee Ranking Member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), argued in favor of taking up their own bill that would increase public funds to candidates. In a procedural move, Van Hollen also asked the House to add language requiring increased transparency of corporate efforts to influence campaigns, but the House rejected this in a 173-228 vote.
The bill approved today was seen as a priority by Republicans due to the support it found in the Republican "You Cut" program, which encourages voters to suggest certain programs for elimination. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said voters chose the bill, and that it deserves a vote.
But Democrats argued that popularity in You Cut is not the same as nation-wide popularity. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) charged that You Cut is "biased" because it does not give people who vote on which programs to cut a chance to vote in favor of saving programs. "Republicans seem to think this online gimmick is an effective substitute for good governance," he said.
The two parties also disagreed on how open the process was. Dreier noted that Republicans allowed a modified open rule that allowed Democratic amendments to be considered, as long as they are germane. Democrats put forward six amendments, but only one amendment was found to be germane. That amendment, from Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), was approved in a 396-7 vote, and would ensure that any unused money created by the bill is used for deficit reduction.
Hastings said consideration of one amendment does not make it a "free flowing debate," as Republicans claimed. Republicans said they were willing to entertain up for five hours of debate on amendments, and that the House Parliamentarian, not the Republican Party, determines which amendments are germane.
This article was updated at 3:30 p.m.