Ernst Calls for End of Taxpayer-Funded Presidential Campaigns

New bill will free up $350 million from unpopular election fund

Sen. Joni Ernst / Getty Images

As candidates prepare to spend billions on the 2020 presidential election, Sen. Joni Ernst (R., Iowa) is working to put to use more than $300 million taxpayer dollars sitting idly in a public campaign fund.

Presidential candidates today may request grants from the taxpayer-funded Presidential Election Campaign Fund to pay for campaign expenses. The fund has accumulated more than $350 million, as no major party candidates have requested public financing in the last 12 years. The Iowa senator has introduced a bill to abolish the fund and divert its money to pay down the national debt.

"Taxpayers see our federal government as spend, spend, spend," Ernst said. "These are taxpayer dollars, let's apply them to our country's debt and move forward. It's over $300 million right now that could be used to close down deficits that we have in our budget."

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The last major party candidate to use public funding was Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) in 2008, who drew more than $84 million from the public fund, roughly 20 percent of all money raised by his campaign. Since then, the fund has mostly drawn interest from third-party candidates such as the Green Party's Jill Stein. Stein spent $450,000 of taxpayer money to fund an unpopular presidential campaign that received barely 1 percent of the total vote.

Every year taxpayers can opt to make a $3 contribution to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. Lawmakers diverted part of the fund to pay for pediatric research in 2014, while some have tried to use it to pay for a southern border wall. In 2017, the House Administration Committee voted 5-3 to approve a bill that would have ended the fund and used the money to pay down the national debt. However, that legislation was never voted on.

Ernst said the 2020 election can help the bill can gain traction as Iowans and the rest of the country turn their attention toward the presidential race.

"It's a big election year and we've got the presidential cycle. And Iowans right now are really focused on this," Ernst said. "So we have a lot of candidates that are running right now. But none of the candidates that we see running this year have taken advantage of this election fund."

While the senator said this type of legislation will have bipartisan appeal, she does not expect it or any other legislation to receive a fair hearing "until the impeachment trial is over."

"I would hope that most of our colleagues understand once we're through the impeachment trial, we really do need to get back to focusing on things that the public wants to see happen. And I think this is a really common sense issue," Ernst said.

The fund was created in 1966 to curb the influence of special interest groups. At its inception, nearly 30 percent of taxpayers chose to contribute to the fund, but interest has fallen in the 21st century. Less than 5 percent of taxpayers contributed in 2018, according to the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution's Tax Policy Center.

Ernst's bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Finance.