WASHINGTON -- House Republicans pushed through legislation on Thursday that would end public financing of presidential campaigns and terminate the Election Assistance Commission, the agency charged with helping states carry out fair elections.
The vote, 235 to 190, went right down the party line, with just one Republican -- Rep. Walter Jones (N.C.) -- joining with all Democrats in opposition.
The bill doesn't have much of a future: It isn't likely to come up in the Democrat-controlled Senate, and the White House released a strongly worded statement against it. But that didn't stop the House from spending hours on it anyway -- and it led to Democrats charging Republicans with trying to chip away at voter protections for disenfranchised groups.
Republicans billed the legislation as a no-brainer for shaving hundreds of millions of dollars off the deficit. Their bill would save about $500 million over five years, with $200 million immediately going to back to the Treasury Department to go toward deficit reduction. In addition to eliminating the commission and public funding for presidential campaigns, the bill would also end public financing for the Democratic and Republican national conventions.
Lawmakers have to make tough choices when it comes to finding ways to bring down the deficit, said Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.), the bill's sponsor, and targeting public financing for presidential campaigns is "about as easy as we're going to find."
"We're talking about eliminating a program that literally no candidate is currently using or preparing to use at this point," he said. "That includes President Obama, who in 2008 famously became the first presidential candidate ever to decline to participate in both the primary and general election phases of the program."
By opting out of public financing, Obama was able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars during his 2008 presidential run. His Republican challenger, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), stayed with public financing and was limited to spending the $84 million he received from the Federal Election Commission.
Republicans also argued for eliminating the Election Assistance Commission, which gives grants to states to help with federal elections, provides voluntary voting system guidelines, and certifies voting equipment. The commission was created as part of the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which came in response to the controversy surrounding the 2000 presidential election.
The agency's "time has come and gone," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), because it currently spends more than half of its budget on administrative needs versus direct assistance to states. Both parties have conceded the commission has its problems.
"This commission has outlived its usefulness, mismanaged its resources, costing the taxpayer millions of dollars a year," said Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.). "Let's eliminate this commission."
But Democrats balked at the idea of getting rid of either program and suggested Republicans were carelessly casting aside protections against voter suppression. Instead, Democrats argued that Congress should be strengthening the commission and doing more to support, not hamper, public financing when it comes to presidential elections.
"If you want to obfuscate the election process, if you want to suppress the vote, if you want to make it more difficult, what is one of the things you want to do? Eliminate the Election Assistance Commission," said House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), who was a cosponsor of the Help America Vote Act.
The commission's responsibility is to provide "best practices to assure that every American not only has the right to vote, but is facilitated in casting that vote and making sure that that vote is counted," Hoyer said. "That's what the Election Assistance Commission does."
Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), who is a quadriplegic, called it "unconscionable" that GOP leaders were considering a bill that would abolish the agency charged with modernizing voting systems and making them accessible to people like him with disabilities, among other groups.
Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, took it a step further. He said "the only reason" anyone would want to eliminate the programs altogether would be to suppress votes among minorities.
"The votes are the same groups who were targeted by Jim Crow laws decades ago," Clay said. "The votes are the same groups who are now targeted by inactive voter lists, and voter ID laws and all of the other new tactics designed for a single goal: voter suppression."
That charge didn't sit well with some of his Republican colleagues.
"I can't believe what I just heard from my friend from Missouri," said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.).
"Doing away with the presidential election campaign fund is not a Jim Crow law," he said. "I'll put my record alongside his on insuring voting rights to minorities as the author of the latest extension of the Voting Rights Act and one who got the 1982 compromise passed and signed into law by President Reagan."