Fact Check: Will HR-1 Give Taxpayer Money to Federal Campaigns?

The day to vote on HR-1, a major piece of legislation that would overhaul campaign finance laws, expand voting rights and limit partisan gerrymandering, has arrived in Washington.

First introduced in 2019, the HR-1, or the For the People Act, is being hailed by some as the next Voting Rights Act, while opponents are pointing to its key provisions as precursors to election fraud and misuse of public funding.

The Claim

One of the primary weapons the bill's opponents are using to argue against the passage of HR-1 is a rule they say would take directly from the average taxpayer and infuse that money into federal campaigns to pay for advertising, consulting and other expenses.

Representative Mark Walker (R-N.C.) tweeted a warning against HR-1 ahead of Wednesday's vote, which included an ad Walker put out in 2019, telling constituents, "Tired of seeing campaign ads? Well, if enacted, #HR1 will take your money and give it to politicians so they can run TV ads."

In the sarcastic ad, a fictional politician reiterates Walker's allegation as he tries to "look relatable" to his audience.

"This week, Democrats will pass HR-1. They're calling it the 'For the People Act,' but really it's for my campaign consultants," the man in the ad says. "HR-1 is going to take your hard-earned tax dollars and millions more, and send them to my campaign so I can put ads on TV."

Tired of seeing campaign ads? Well, if enacted, #HR1 will take your money and give it to politicians so they can run TV ads.

New year, same legislation put forth by the House Dems that puts politicians and their campaigns over people.pic.twitter.com/Np6R4demAX

— Mark Walker (@RepMarkWalker) March 2, 2021

The Facts

A goal of HR-1 is to diminish the influence of PACs and corporate wealth in the federal election process, and one way it aims to do so is by creating small donation matching through a public financing system, according to the text of the bill. Similar programs already exist on the state level and are available to eligible candidates running for the presidency.

Eugene Mazo, a law professor specializing in campaign finance and election law, said there is a fund for presidential campaigns run through the Federal Election Commission (FEC) for the primary and general elections.

"Once you qualify, the federal government will give you [about $94 million], but of course that is not enough money to run a presidential campaign," Mazo said. "To give you an example, in 1998 and again in 2008, Joe Biden ran for president. He lost, but he qualified and used public funds, and he got $50 [million] or $60 million to run those campaigns."

Mazo explained that in 1976, a U.S. Supreme Court case, Buckley vs. Valeo, blew holes in the Federal Election Campaign Act, rendering statutory limits on election spending unconstitutional while upholding other parts of the act, such as contribution ceilings.

Another piece of FECA that was struck down was the Congressional and Senatorial public financing system. Mazo said that it also upheld public funding for presidential elections, but those dollars are not used by fringe candidates who run to promote their issues.

The money comes from voluntary contributions made by taxpayers, who could previously check off a box on their tax forms that would donate $2 to $6 to the fund used for presidential public financing, which goes into a fund regulated by the FEC.

But there is no such system available to candidates running for Congress, putting underdogs at a disadvantage. Incumbent politicians in safe districts, Mazo explained, have the security of knowing that their opponents have almost no chance of winning. Mazo ran for New Jersey's 10th Congressional District in 2020 in part to highlight the difficulty challengers in most U.S. congressional races face.

HR-1 seeks to change that by establishing a public financing system for those races in the hopes of giving more "average" Americans a more even playing field, according to the text of the bill. The bill seeks to fund a 6-to-1 small donation matching program exclusively through the Freedom from Influence Fund, which, unlike funding that has been used for presidential campaigns for decades, is not necessarily taken directly from everyday taxpayers.

According to the latest draft of HR-1, the Freedom from Influence Fund accumulates money from a 2.75 percent surcharge on criminal and civil penalties, as well as settlements from corporations, corporate officers and, to a much lesser extent, individual tax code violators in upper-income brackets.

HR-1 also would create public funding through a pilot program in three states to provide $25 vouchers for eligible voters to optionally give money to candidates.

The 6-to-1 ratio, which is similar to one used for New York's elections, would apply only to donations of $200 or less, including vouchers, and candidates are eligible only if they have raised at least $50,000 in small-dollar donations from at least 1,000 donors. They would not be allowed to accept contributions larger than $1,000.

The vote is scheduled for Wednesday night.

The Ruling

Mostly False.

In the case of HR-1, the Freedom from Influence Fund is not taking money from a broad pool of tax dollars, as Walker's tweet claims, but according to Mazo, anything the government takes from penalties and surcharges can be considered a tax.

Even an article by House Republicans that Walker linked to acknowledged that the proposed public financing system would use "corporate dollars."

Nancy Pelosi Swears in New Members
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) swears in new members of Congress during the first session of the 117th Congress in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on January 3, 2021, in Washington, D.C. TASOS KATOPODIS/POOL/AFP/Getty Images

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