By: Amy Rhoades
In March 2021, the House passed the H.R. 1 For the People Act, a sweeping voting rights bill designed to increase access to voting, amend campaign finance laws, and reform ethic rules. Within the bill is a series of public spending provisions intended to counter the rise of corporate and special interest funding after Citizens United. Drawing from successful programs at the state and local levels, the House is betting that a public funding system can address the vast disparity in campaign funds from small donors versus large corporate entities.
The bill proposes implementing three public spending measures: piloting a voter voucher program, public fund matching for Congressional elections, and updating the public financing system for Presidential elections. The Congressional public funding provision would strengthen small-donor contributions by matching public funds 6:1 for every dollar contributed to a campaign within a $200 limit. Under the bill, to qualify for public fund matching, candidates must accept conditions that further increase the value of public-funded dollars. For example, one condition is that candidates would have a maximum threshold for individual donations of $1,000 instead of $2,800. By lowering the maximum threshold, a small-donor contribution of $200 is increased to $1,400 after public fund matching, and could add more value than an individual maximum contribution to the candidate.
Proponents of the bill argue that government subsidies will level the playing field between individual donors and large corporations by amplifying small-donor contributions. Studies of state programs that implemented public fund matching have shown the system to increase participation and drastically shift the proportion of campaign financing to small donors. The public funding program may encourage more individuals to contribute small donations knowing the program will increase the value of their funds and create a means for candidates to rely less on special interest contributions.
On the other hand, critics question whether the system is a waste of government funds or if it will curb large donor spending. As currently written, the bill is funded through a surcharge on penalties and fines associated with corporations’ federal criminal and civil violations. The Congressional Budget Office (“CBO”) estimates the public funding provisions will cost the government $3.2 billion for election cycles through 2031, a cost the CBO projects will be covered by the $3.4 billion in revenue from the additional assessment on penalties. However, the growing campaign spending will likely far outpace the CBO’s projected costs for the bill. Further, H.R. 1 does not place limits on the total spending of candidates. Therefore, candidates who accept public fund matching from the program can still court corporate and special interest contributions to their campaign. If enacted, the public funding provisions of H.R. 1 will devalue corporate political speech by buoying up campaigns with matched small-donor contributions.
 For the People Act of 2021, H.R. 1, 117th Cong. (2021).
 See Peter W. Stevenson, Here’s What H.R. 1, the House Voting Rights Bill, Would Do, The Wash. Post (Mar. 5, 2021, 6:00 AM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/03/05/hr1-bill-what-is-it/ (summarizing the provisions of H.R. 1).
 See Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm’n, 558 U.S. 310 (2010) (finding spending limits for corporations unconstitutional); see also H.R. 1 § 5001(4) (proposing the ruling in Citizens United led to unlimited campaign funding from large donors).
 See 2020 Super PACs: How Many Donors Give, Ctr. for Responsive Politics, https://www.opensecrets.org/outside-spending/donor-stats?cycle=2020&type=B (last visited Apr. 1, 2021) (stating that the top 1 percent of donors contributed 96 percent of all campaign funds in the 2020 election).
 See H.R. 1 §§ 5100-200.
 See H.R. 1 § 501(b).
 See id.
 Compare H.R. 1 § 5201(c)(1)(A) (modifying the proposed matching payments to individuals with an aggregate contribution that does not exceed $1,000), with Press Release, Fed. Election Comm’n, FEC Announces 2019–2020 Campaign Cycle Contribution Limits (Feb. 7, 2019), https://www.fec.gov/updates/fec-announces-20192020-campaign-cycle-contribution-limits/ (announcing that the individual contribution limit to candidates was $2,800 for the 2020 federal election cycle).
 See Glenn Kessler, Would ‘Every Small Dollar Donated’ Be Matched 6 to 1 Under the House Democratic Plan?, The Wash. Post (Mar. 8, 2019, 3:00 AM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/03/08/would-every-small-dollar-donated-be-matched-under-house-democratic-plan/.
 See Michael J. Malbin, Peter W. Brusoe & Brendan Glavin, Small Donors, Big Democracy: New York City’s Matching Funds as a Model for the Nation and States, 11 Election L. J. 12 (Nov. 1, 2012), http://www.cfinst.org/pdf/state/NYC-as-a-Model_ELJ_As-Published_March2012.pdf (finding that after implementing a 6:1 public fund matching program, New York City saw an increase of 55 percent in small donor contributors to candidates).
 See id. at 10.
 H.R. 1 § 541(b)(1); see also Gareth Fowler & Daniel I. Weiner, Understanding H.R. 1’s Public Financing Provisions, Brennan Ctr. for Just. 2 (Sept. 20, 2019), https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/analysis/Understanding%20HR1%20Public%20Financing.pdf.
 Notes on Estimated Effects on Direct Spending and Revenues H.R. 1, For the People Act of 2021, Cong. Budget Off., https://www.cbo.gov/system/files/2021-03/hr1.pdf (last visited Apr. 7, 2021).
 See Karl Evers-Hillstrom, Most Expensive Ever; 2020 Election Cost $14.4 Billion, Ctr. for Responsive Pol. Center for Responsive Politics (Feb. 11, 2021, 1:14 PM), https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2021/02/2020-cycle-cost-14p4-billion-doubling-16/ (describing how political spending doubled between the 2016 and 2020 election cycles, surpassing $14.4 billion in spending).
 See Public Funding of Presidential Elections, Fed. Election Comm’n, https://www.fec.gov/introduction-campaign-finance/understanding-ways-support-federal-candidates/presidential-elections/public-funding-presidential-elections/ (last visited Apr. 2, 2021) (explaining the required spending limits a presidential candidate is required to abide by if accepting support from the presidential public funding program).
 See Lawrence Lessig, Third Parties Fear the Democrats’ Big Voter Bill. It’ll Actually Help Them, The Wash. Post (Mar. 16, 2021, 10:49 AM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/03/16/hr1-public-funding-third-parties/ (discussing how H.R. 1 could encourage major party candidates to participate in public fund matching because there is no limit to overall campaign spending).