A law to boost government support for pediatric cancer research while eliminating funding for political party conventions looks good — but critics say that’s about it.
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has signed a law that aims to increase government support for research into pediatric cancer while eliminating public funding for political party conventions.
The bill, which was spearheaded by the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, received remarkably little political opposition despite having repeatedly failed in the past. Indeed, last week’s vote in the U.S. Senate was unanimous, and the president signed the bill, known as the Gabriella Miller “Kids First” Research Act, into law shortly thereafter.
The vote appears to have been an easy one for many lawmakers, given the ostensible choice between children’s health research and the alcohol, balloons and set designs that go into what are widely seen as the increasingly irrelevant exercises of four-yearly presidential conventions. In 2012, the Democratic and Republican national conventions cost some $36.5 million, according to Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell.
Further, the issue of federally-funded medical research has become increasingly charged over the past year due to the “sequestration”-related cuts that have been made to the National Institutes of Health and all other federal agencies. These budget reductions have been widely denounced for their irreparable impact on ongoing research.
Critics, however, say that neither the vote nor the law is what it appears to be. Public interest and campaign finance reform advocates are warning that the new legislation will inevitably lead to strengthening the influence of rich and corporate donors. Even supporters of the bill have brushed off concerns about convention funding, noting that private money will easily bridge the gap.
There are also concerns that the vote is part of a broader strategy to dismantle the last vestiges of a public system of campaign financing that for decades has been aimed at reducing corruption and offering an equal voice to all voters.
“We believe that public financing of campaigns at the presidential and congressional level is key to dealing with the problem of big money in politics. So, we’re not thrilled with legislation that further chips away at the presidential public financing system,” Lisa Gilbert, director of the Congress Watch Division at Public Citizen, a watchdog group, told MintPress News.
“Certainly in this era of big money politics, when we’re all reeling from a series of Supreme Court decisions empowering big donors, public financing is all the more important.”
When the bill arrived in the Senate, not a single legislator voted against it. But the vote in the House of Representatives was split, with 102 Democrats and one Republican voting against the bill. Indeed, the Democratic leader in the House, Nancy Pelosi, was one of the proposal’s opponents. She called it a sham.
That’s because the new law won’t actually deliver the money that is being promised — at least not immediately. Instead, it diverts around $126 million, over the course of a decade, away from the presidential convention funding, then authorizes that money to be used for pediatric health research.
The real work will come down to appropriators’ haggling down the road — and those appropriations will still be subject to the sequestration-related cuts that have eaten into the National Institutes of Health and other such funding in the first place.
“In fact, there’s no increased appropriation. Rather, this was a ‘fig leaf’ bill with the actual intent of whittling away at the presidential public financing,” Gilbert said.
“On its face it’s a lovely bill, and I’m sure there’s a set of lawmakers that didn’t realize what it would or wouldn’t accomplish. And there are other folks who will be happy with the law’s impact. Ultimately, this bill was successful in providing a smokescreen to its actual intent, and it’s sad that cancer research could be used as a shield in this way.”
President Obama has been outspoken in his concern over the trend toward increased influence by the super-rich in U.S. politics. At the formal signing of the Gabriella Miller bill, however, he said nothing about the financial structure behind the promised research funding, though he did acknowledge that even this money was not yet appropriated.
“A coalition of outstanding legislators … decided that in [Gabriella Miller’s] memory we needed to make sure that we get more money into research,” the president said on Thursday, pointing specifically to increasing funding to the National Institutes of Health for research on brain tumors.
“What this legislation is going to do is put millions of additional dollars into that research. We’re going to need some cooperation from Congress to continue to work on a bipartisan basis to actually allocate those dollars in an effective way.”
The new law marks the fourth time in recent years that Republican lawmakers have attempted to weaken or do away with the presidential public financing system. In the past, the Obama administration has repeatedly expressed its opposition to such proposals.
In January 2011, for instance, the White House “strongly opposed” a House bill that would have halted all public funding for presidential campaigns and party conventions — the bill that was eventually repurposed into the proposal that just became law.
“It is critical that the Nation’s Presidential election public financing system be fixed rather than dismantled,” the administration stated at the time.
“[The bill’s] effect would be to expand the power of corporations and special interests in the Nation’s elections; to force many candidates into an endless cycle of fundraising at the expense of engagement with voters on the issues; and to place a premium on access to large donor or special interest support, narrowing the field of otherwise worthy candidates.”
The White House also referenced the then-recent Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which allowed for almost unlimited anonymous corporate political contributions. As that decision had just “rolled back a century of law,” the White House said, “this is not the time to further empower the special interests or to obstruct the work of reform.”
Last month, 10 public interest and campaign finance groups sent the president a letter, reminding him of this policy stance.
“The presidential public financing system served the nation well for most of its existence and the system needs to be repaired, not repealed,” the groups stated. “This is a position you have taken in opposing the repeal of public financing for presidential candidates and party nominating conventions.”
This time around, Obama expressed no public concerns about the Gabriella Miller bill, which became law just a day after a second high-profile Supreme Court ruling that again rolled back longstanding caps on political contributions, known as McCutcheon v. FEC. Several watchdog groups have responded by saying the Democrats had “folded” to Republican demands.
“It is very disappointing,” Public Citizen’s Gilbert said. “When Obama came to town he said he was going to reform the system. And while we would like to believe that to be true, there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary.”
Still, many proponents of campaign finance reform see a growing public understanding that small-donor-focused public funding is one of the key remedies to big money in politics.
“Big threats like these create a wide range of solutions,” Marge Baker, executive vice president for People for the American Way, an advocacy group, told MintPress following the McCutcheon decision.
“There is a movement building around the country to address the huge money-in-politics problem, and that’s growing every day, from amending the Constitution to small-donor financing reforms. These are mutually reinforcing pro-democracy reforms.”
Much of U.S. federal government spending receives regular criticism for being too far removed from citizens’ immediate concerns and often only tangentially related to issues that are on state or national ballots and referendums.
The presidential public financing system, however, worked differently, receiving its money from individual taxpayers who checked a box on their annual tax returns to have $3 go to support candidates for office and the broader electoral system. The original idea behind this earmark was to reduce political parties’ reliance on big donors.
The Gabriella Miller bill was crafted by Rep. Eric Cantor, the second-highest Republican in the House, and prominently backed by Sen. McConnell, the lead Republican in the Senate.
In reaction to the bill’s passage, McConnell was one of the few to directly address the new law’s funding structure and aims. In his own reaction, Cantor sidestepped the issue entirely.
The law “will rightfully shift funding away from the Republican and Democratic national political conventions … [and] completely end the taxpayer subsidy for the two parties’ national conventions,” McConnell said.
“Childhood diseases and disorders is the kind of issue that should not be decided based on political party, and I don’t think anyone can argue with the fact that helping sick and disabled children should take priority over sound bites, balloons and streamers.”
In fact, the new money constitutes less than 0.05 of 1 percent of the National Institutes of Health’s overall budget, which amounts to some $30 billion a year. The agency’s budget remains some $700 million lower than it was before the sequestration cuts of 2013.