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ANALYSIS: The Bill That Just Died In The Senate Was A Ploy To Use Public Funds For Political Campaigns

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Brianna Lyman News and Commentary Writer
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Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin was one of the only things standing in the way of Democrats successfully passing a sweeping “election reform” bill that would nationalize election laws and create a federal fund to foot the bill on political campaigns.

The “For the People Act,” also known as H.R. 1, would have automatically enrolled people as young as 16 to vote, ended voter ID requirements and legalized ballot harvesting. It recently died in the Senate, but it had a few eyebrow-raising provisions.

One would actually have had the public paying for candidates’ campaigns. Under the legislation, a public fund would be created that would match any donations to qualifying presidential or congressional candidates at a rate of six to one. For example, if an individual donates a maximum of $200 to a congressional candidate, the candidate would then receive $1,200 match from the public funds. The candidate would rake in a total of $1,400.

Candidates would be required to opt into the fund after they meet certain qualifications and there would be contribution limits. To pay for the program, a 4.75% surcharge would be implemented on criminal and civil penalties and settlements that corporations pay to the U.S. government. The proceeds would then be deposited into the Freedom From Influence Fund, so the theory went.

While the average taxpayer isn’t directly funding the matching program, penalties and surcharges are quite the same.

A list from the Committee on House Administration Republicans notes the fund would be paid for with “corporate dollars.” A report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates the tax would generate roughly $3.2 billion over 10 years.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said the provision was necessary to get big money out of politics, according to Fox News.

“I’m very fond of saying if we reduce the role of money in politics and increase the level of decency and civility, we will be able to elect many more women, many more people of color, many more young people into elective office.”

During the 2020 election cycle, a whopping $750 million was poured into campaigns by so-called “dark money” groups, according to Open Secrets. But that’s not the only provision in H.R. 1 that would essentially allow candidates to run campaigns bankrolled more or less directly by taxpayers. (RELATED: ‘I’m Not Going To Be Part Of It’: Joe Manchin Says Torching Filibuster To Pass HR-1 Will Breed Distrust And Anarchy)

Under the “My Voice Voucher Pilot Program,” which would have been set up in three states, voters would be given a $25 voucher to donate to any congressional candidate. States would be given a $10 million reimbursement from the federal government.

Democrats tried passing similar legislation in 2019 but were shot down. A research paper from the Brennan Center said “the clout donors wield in our political system has contributed to a sense of powerlessness on the part of millions of everyday Americans,” and argued that allowing the public to take a more active approach could limit corruption.

The U.S. has used a donor matching program in the past, albeit for presidential campaigns, according to the Brennan Center. Former President Ronald Reagan won his reelection campaign despite not hosting fundraisers by using the public financing system that H.R. 1 seeks to revitalize, according to the report.

The bipartisan Commission on National Elections found in 1986 that “public financing of presidential elections has clearly proved its worth in opening up the process, reducing the influence of individuals and groups, and virtually ending corruption in presidential election finance,” the Brennan Center found.

But not everyone was on board with the program.

H.R. 1 passed the House along party lines except for Democratic Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, who voted against the bill. Thompson voted the bill down because his “constituents opposed the redistricting portion of the bill as well as the section on public finances.”

“I always listen and vote in the interest of my constituents,” Thompson said.

But it is Manchin who held the most pull when it came to passing H.R. 1. Manchin recently unveiled his own version of H.R. 1 which strips away key Democratic provisions – including the the public financing system.

“A good voting bill basically protects the voters, protects the states and states rights,” Manchin said, according to Market Watch. “A good voting bill has to be accessible. It has to be fair, and it has to be secure.”

Should Manchin’s proposal be accepted by Democrats, any hope of a fund-matching program is diminished.