What did reformers hope to accomplish by using public funds to pay for elections?
The main goal has always been to reduce the influence of big donors. This has been cited as the major reason for public funding since the turn of the twentieth century. A related goal is to reduce the amount of time candidates must spend raising campaign funds. The less time they spend on the phone or schmoozing with rich donors at fundraisers, the more time they have to spend talking with voters and doing their jobs as policymakers.
Reformers also hoped that publicly funded elections would be more competitive. Incumbents would always have an advantage, which they earned by getting a majority of the vote in the previous election. But challengers would improve their chances by not having to start their campaigns so far behind in the money chase.
Why was Senator Long’s public funding bill so controversial?
There were two cross-cutting lines of disagreement: between the (mostly Democratic) supporters of government subsidies and the (mostly Republican) opponents, and among Democrats who favored some kind of public funding but could not agree on how to design the program. In a Congress controlled by Democrats, it was their intraparty differences over how such a program should work that were the most important.5
Where would the money come from? Who would distribute it? Would the money go to parties or candidates? Would it finance primary elections or only general elections? And what was the best way to determine who should get how much money? These are crucial questions for public funding.
They did not get the consideration they needed because Long got around opposition to his bill by pushing it through as one of several riders on a tax bill in the last days of the 89th Congress. So many senators wanted at least one of the riders to pass that no one was willing to vote any one of them down. In the last days of the session, when many members of both houses had already left town, Congress narrowly approved the measure.
That was a very slim base of support for such a far-reaching reform. Too slim, as it turned out. When Congress reconvened in 1967, the law's opponents renewed the attack. The major problem was what to do about the income tax checkoff, which Long had invented as the means for financing his program. An income tax checkoff is a very unusual way to finance a federal government program. Normally, when Congress votes to start a government program, it also appropriates the money to pay for it. In this case, though, Congress voted for a program and decided to pay for it by what amounts to an annual referendum. No other public policy is financed this way, and critics of Long's bill worried that it could set a dangerous precedent.
But the two sides were evenly matched. There were not enough votes either to repeal Long's act or to keep it intact, so both sides agreed to kick the can down the road. They kept the checkoff but postponed indefinitely a decision about what to do with it.