Dec 22, 2019 - Politics & Policy

The Federal Election Commission is sitting on millions of public campaign dollars

The FEC logo on top of a bookshelf.
Photo: Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call

The U.S. agency charged with administering the public financing of presidential campaigns doesn't have enough board members to distribute tens of millions of dollars collected for that purpose.

Why it matters: It's the first time since the program started in 1976 that there aren't enough commissioners to approve public funding applications.

Details: The Federal Election Commission needs a quorum of four to review and approve applications for public funding, but it currently only has three.

  • There's no indication of when President Trump will name up to three replacements. The White House declined a request for comment.
  • The FEC is encouraging candidates who seek to use public financing to apply “in the expectation that once a quorum is reestablished the requests will be considered expeditiously,” spokesperson Judith Ingram said.
  • The only Democratic primary candidate who had expressed interest in tapping public campaign funding, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, dropped out on Dec. 2.

How it works: Candidates seeking the nomination of a major political party are eligible to get up to $250 per individual contribution matched by the public funds, according to FEC rules.

  • Candidates have to raise more than $5,000 in each of at least 20 states with contributions of up to $250. That's at least 20 donors in each state.
  • Candidates who agree to take public funds must agree to limit their state-by-state spending to an amount the FEC authorizes and allow the commission to audit their books.
  • In 2016, that limit was just over $48 million for the primary election and $96 million for the general elections — a total of $144 million.
  • As a point of comparison, Hillary Clinton's campaign spent $565 million for the primary and general election, nearly four times the public funding limit.
  • Donald Trump spent $322 million, more than double the limit.

The odds: Public funding, for better or for worse, has come to be seen by many in politics as sort of a Hail Mary for struggling campaigns. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley used it in 2016 in a last-ditch effort to keep up with Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

  • John Edwards' 2008 campaign manager, Joe Trippi, said it was "effectively the end" of O'Malley's campaign, per BuzzFeed News. Edwards used public funds in his 2008 run.
  • "No campaign that is serious can win taking that money," Trippi said.
  • Trippi recently told Axios he still thinks that's the case.

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