Order Code RL32786
The Presidential Election Campaign Fund and Tax
Checkoff: Background and Current Issues
Updated January 10, 2007
Joseph E. Cantor
Specialist in American National Government
Government and Finance Division
The Presidential Election Campaign Fund and Tax
Checkoff: Background and Current Issues
Since 1976, presidential elections have been financed to some extent through
public funds, availability of which is determined by a voluntary tax checkoff.
Through June 2006, $1.435 billion has been “checked off,” and candidates and
parties have received $1.332 billion in this manner. After three decades, presidential
election public funding is by no means a universally supported program, as reflected
in declining taxpayer checkoffs and periodic calls for the program’s abolition.
Concerns that structural problems have greatly eroded the system’s value have led
to recent calls for major amendments to bolster it. Such concerns and continued
controversies suggest that the future of presidential public funding is not assured and
that Congress may revisit the issue.
Evolution of Current Law . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
The Tax Checkoff . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
The Campaign Fund in Operation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Evaluating the Merits of the System . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
Recent Developments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
Congressional Response and Activity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
List of Tables
Table 1. Financial Status of Tax Checkoff and the Presidential Election
Campaign Fund: 1973-2006 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
Table 2. Public Subsidies in Presidential Elections: 1976-2004 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
The Presidential Election
Campaign Fund and Tax Checkoff:
Background and Current Issues
Since 1976, presidential elections have been financed to some extent through
public funds, availability of which is determined by a voluntary tax checkoff.
Candidates who meet eligibility requirements and agree to voluntary limits on
campaign expenditures qualify for matching funds in the primaries. Major party
candidates qualify for full subsidies equal to the spending limit in the general election
(other candidates may also qualify for funds). Also, political parties may receive
funding for their nominating conventions.
Evolution of Current Law
Public funding of presidential elections was first proposed by Representative
William Cockran in 1904 and subsequently by President Theodore Roosevelt in
1907, to curb corruption by reducing or eliminating the role of private money in
elections. The idea did not generate substantial support until 1956, when bills began
regularly to be introduced. The effort culminated in the Presidential Election
Campaign Fund Act of 1966 (80 Stat. 1587), authorizing voluntary dollar checkoffs
on income tax returns to fund subsidies to the parties for presidential general
elections. In 1967, however, 81 Stat. 57 terminated the Fund before it took effect.
The idea reappeared as a floor amendment by Senator John Pastore during
Senate consideration of the 1971 Revenue Act. It survived four days of floor debate,
strong Republican opposition, and President Nixon’s threatened veto (which was
avoided by delaying implementation until the 1976 elections). The Revenue Act of
1971 (85 Stat. 573) established today’s Presidential Election Campaign Fund (the
Fund) — a separate account in the U.S. Treasury to fund general election campaigns
of presidential candidates who met the qualifying conditions and who agreed to abide
by the national spending limit. Payments were to be made directly to candidates
(unlike the 1966 Act), with full grants equal to the spending limit for major party
candidates, limited grants to minor party candidates based on prior electoral strength,
and post-election payments to new party candidates based on votes in that election.
The act set up a voluntary dollar checkoff on federal tax returns ($2 on joint returns),
beginning with the 1972 tax year.
The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) of 1971 (86 Stat. 3) placed a
$50,000 limit on presidential candidate (and family) contributions to his or her own
campaign, later imposed as a condition for receiving public funds. Before the general
election system took effect, the 1974 FECA Amendments (88 Stat. 1263) extended
public funding to primaries and nominating conventions. Arguably a response to
Watergate, that statute made the most sweeping changes ever in federal campaign
law. Among its features were the following:
provided for Fund payments to finance presidential nominating
conventions, fully for major parties (i.e., equal to the spending limit
of $2 million plus cost-of-living-allowance, or COLA, which in
2004 amounted to $14.9 million) and a lesser amount for minor
created the Presidential Primary Matching Payment Account in the
Fund to defray pre-nomination costs, by matching small donations
($250 or less) by individuals to candidates. Candidates would
qualify by raising $100,000 from small individual donations, with at
least $5,000 in each of 20 states, and by agreeing to a national
primary spending limit ($10 million, plus COLA, which in 2004
came to $37.3 million) and state-by-state limits (the greater of 16¢
times the state’s voting age population, or $200,000, plus COLA);
set the general election spending limit at $20 million, plus COLA
(equal to $74.6 million in 2004), and made transfers into the Fund
automatic, without requiring congressional appropriations; and
established the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and charged it
with certifying eligibility of candidates, authorizing payments, and
A legal challenge led to the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Buckley v.
Valeo [424 U.S. 1 (1976)], upholding public financing and spending limits as a
voluntary system of benefits and conditions but overturning mandatory limits.
The current presidential system [26 U.S.C.§9001-13, 9031-42] is essentially as
it was created by the 1971 and 1974 laws.1 Under 107 Stat. 312, the checkoff was
tripled in value to $3 ($6 on a joint return), prompted by a prospective 1996 Fund
shortfall. The law requires pro-rated payment reductions in case of a shortfall, which
occurred for the first and only time in the 2000 primaries. Under those
circumstances, the FEC paid out only a percentage of matching funds due, until the
Fund was replenished by 1999 tax revenues, thus providing candidates with
retroactive payments (general election and convention subsidies were not affected).
Changes include increasing the checkoff’s prominence on tax forms and disallowing party
designations [87 Stat. 130, 1973]; ending matching funds if candidates get less than 10% of
the vote in two successive primaries (restoring it if they get at least 20% in a later primary)
[90 Stat. 475, 1976 FECA Amendments]; raising the convention subsidy base to $3 million
+ COLA [93 Stat. 1339, 1979 FECA Amendments] and to $4 million + COLA [98 Stat. 394,
The Tax Checkoff
The checkoff that funds the system first appeared on 1972 tax returns, allowing
a designation of $1 ($2 on joint returns) to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund;
those amounts were later tripled as of the 1993 returns. Through June 2006, $1.435
billion has been “checked off.” While the concept of a $1 checkoff was to build
presidential campaign financing on a mass base of small donors, the extent of
taxpayer participation has likely proved disappointing to proponents. Whether for
lack of support, or misunderstanding that checkoffs do not increase one’s tax bill,
participation rates have been low and generally declining — from a high of 28.7%
on 1980 returns to a low of 9.2% on 2004 returns. The remainder of taxpayers have
checked “no” or left the box blank, which has a “no” effect.
Table 1 provides data on the tax checkoff which funds the presidential public
Table 1. Financial Status of Tax Checkoff and the
Presidential Election Campaign Fund: 1973-2006
(dollar amounts in millions)
Tax checkoff designations
% of returns b
Presidential Election Campaign
Source: Department of the Treasury and Internal Revenue Service data, as compiled by FEC in 2006 data sheet.
a. Calendar year when funds were received or paid out; checkoff data, however, correspond to the tax year, and
are not calculated until the processing of returns in following calendar year.
b. % of returns designating $1 or $2 (later $3 or $6), reflecting returns for that tax year but processed in next
c. Year-end balances not easily reconciled with other data, due to repayments after audits.
The Campaign Fund in Operation
In eight elections, from 1976 to 2004, $1.332 billion was distributed: $342.2
million to 92 primary candidates, $151.9 million for 16 major party and one minor
party nominating conventions, and $838.3 million to 16 major party nominees and
three independents or minor party candidates in general elections. Of the total, $646.2
million went to Democrats (54 primary candidates, eight general election tickets, and
eight party conventions); $627.3 million to Republicans (29 primary candidates, eight
general election tickets, and eight party conventions); and $59.0 million to minor
party/independent candidates and parties (nine in primaries, three in general
elections, and one nominating convention).
While the rate of taxpayer acceptance has been low, candidate acceptance has
generally been high, at least up until the 2000 elections. Of some 82 presidential
candidates generally considered as “serious” (based on media standards, name
recognition, etc.) from 1976 to 2004, only eight — John Connally (1980), Ross Perot
(1992), Steve Forbes (1996), Forbes and George W. Bush (2000), and Howard Dean,
John Kerry, and Bush (2004) — did not participate in the primary matching fund
system.2 All major party nominees have accepted the public funding in the general
election, however, including those who did not opt for matching funds in the
primaries (Bush in 2000 and Bush and Kerry in 2004).
Those who have participated have done so because of the obvious advantages
in easier access to funds and, in a larger sense, a general acceptance of the public
funding system in the political community and the media. Many of these
participating candidates, in fact, were philosophically opposed to public financing of
elections and checked “no” on their own tax forms. The non-participants, however,
had adequate access to campaign money and were unwilling to abide by the act’s
concomitant spending limits, generally for fear that doing so might prove to be an
electoral disadvantage to them.
Table 2 provides data on the amounts of money paid out from the Presidential
Election Campaign Fund from the 1976 to the 2004 elections.
The label “serious” (i.e., having a reasonable chance to win) is generally a media-driven
standard, applied to major party candidates who have been in some way in the public eye,
or to those whose name recognition or financial resources bestows electoral credibility.
Table 2. Public Subsidies in Presidential Elections: 1976-2004
(dollar amounts in millions; totals may not add up due to rounding)
Source: FEC, Report on the Presidential Public Funding Program, 1993, pp. 139-143; updated FEC data.
no.: number of candidates.
Party Key: D-Democratic, R-Republican, NU-National Unity, C-Citizens, NA-National Alliance, NL-National
Law, Ref-Reform Party, I - Independent.
Evaluating the Merits of the System
After nearly three decades, presidential election public funding is by no means
a universally supported program, as reflected in declining taxpayer checkoffs,
attempts in the 102nd and 104th Congresses to end the system, and decisions by major
candidates to forgo public funding in the 2000 and 2004 elections. While supporters
say that the system has curbed campaign spending and reliance on private resources,
opponents point to the large amounts of private funds spent in unregulated ways, thus
undermining the spending limits — a prime reason for giving public funds.
Underlying most evaluations are sharply opposing views of public funding, a
schism little changed from the start. Supporters see it as a democratic, egalitarian
system, offering the best chance to reduce the corrosive effects of money on the
political process and renew public confidence in it. Opponents see it as a waste of
tax money, which artificially skews the results and forces taxpayers to fund
candidates whom they oppose.
Assessments of public funding are also linked with those of the accompanying
expenditure limits, in light of the 1976 Buckley ruling that only voluntary limits are
permissible (such as those agreed to in conjunction with receipt of public benefits).
While there are distinct reasons to favor public funding per se, perhaps its greatest
appeal has become its inducement to candidate acceptance of spending limits.
(Opinion surveys invariably register strong support for limits, but generally show
only modest support for public funding.)
While candidate-controlled spending (subject to limits) has been suppressed
from pre-1976 levels, other forms of spending to benefit candidates have emerged
which have increasingly served to circumvent the limits. Even in the “fully-funded”
general election, additional spending by parties and groups has undermined the intent
of overall limits (most notably through party soft money, issue advocacy messages,
and activities by groups operating under Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code).
Critics view this as an inherent obstacle to efforts to limit spending; supporters see
it as a problem that can and should be corrected to protect the integrity of the system.
Few would argue that the system has freed candidates from dependence on
private money, but to the extent that large amounts of public funds have been
available, money’s perceived influence may have declined. Moreover, what many
see as the burden and distraction of fund-raising has been lessened, particularly for
major party nominees. It is also true, however, that soft money has allowed the
wealthy again to make very large donations, through the parties up until 2002 and
most recently through 527 organizations, raising comparable issues to those raised
by the former system.
While it is undeniable that the system forces taxpayers in effect to fund
candidates they may find repugnant, the prediction that public funding would spur
fringe candidacies has largely not been realized. Counting Lyndon LaRouche (who
ran as a Democrat from 1980 to 2004) and 11 minor party candidates who qualified
for funding as “fringe” candidates, and adding the $12.6 million in subsidies paid to
the Reform Party for its 2000 convention, the $64.2 million they received is only
4.8% of all public funding since 1976.
Public funding supporters argue that it has helped unknown candidates rise
through the ranks, even to the point of nomination and election. In three of the six
elections from 1976 to 2004 in which an incumbent was seeking reelection, a
challenger (historically underfunded) has defeated an incumbent President.
In terms of the relative support and acceptance of public funding, the reviews
are decidedly mixed. Support has been strong among candidates (at least until 2000),
the political community, the media, citizens’ groups, and various outside panels
studying the political process. But mass public acceptance has not developed. Low
checkoff rates mirror the fairly consistent opposition in opinion polls to public
financing per se, although support generally rises when the question is posed as
public funding with limits on spending and interest groups.
Public funding opponents note that it has not stemmed the decline in confidence
in the political system registered in opinion polls of the past 30 years. Supporters say
that such data argue for further reforms in the system, and even its extension to
congressional races. They also insist that one must consider how much worse the
presidential system might be today were it not for public funding (especially given
the limits on contributions without mandatory spending limits). Critics do not
disagree that presidential elections are cleaner today than before 1976, but insist that
FECA’s disclosure provisions and funding source limits are far more important
factors than public funding.
Recent Developments. In the past two years, concerns about the efficacy
of the presidential public finance system have led a number of observers who
generally support the system to offer critiques of its operation and suggestions for
remedies. Declaring that “there is a crisis in the public funding system for
presidential candidates,” the non-partisan Campaign Finance Institute created a Blue
Ribbon Task Force in January 2003 to study and make recommendations regarding
the presidential nominating system. “To put the point simply,”said Michael J.
Malbin, the Institute’s Executive Director, “the system is broken. It will force some
very tough choices for candidates, and for the public, before this year is over.”3
Indicative of the recent rethinking of the system’s value was the decision by
major candidates in the two most recent elections to forgo public financing. In 2000,
George W. Bush became the first person elected since 1976 without having
participated fully in the public finance system; he participated in it during the general
election that year but not the primaries. The decision by President Bush not to
participate in the system during the 2004 primaries, a choice mirrored by two leading
Democratic contenders — Governor Dean and Senator Kerry — was perhaps the
clearest signal yet that problems in the system’s operation had seriously eroded the
appeal, and hence the value, of the presidential public funding system.
Among the commonly cited problems in the system’s operation are the
Campaign Finance Institute, Blue Ribbon Task Force to Hold Public Hearing on
Presidential Nomination Financing, Press release, Jan. 27, 2003.
Potential shortfalls in the fund — The past few elections have seen
shortfalls in available public funds to distribute in a timely way to
presidential primary candidates. While the problems were resolved
as additional checkoff designations made more money available,
recent elections have been clouded by concerns over insufficient
matching funds to meet certified candidate submissions.
Increased need for early money — The notable trend toward frontloading of presidential primaries has caused more candidates to
campaign in earnest well in advance of the election year. The
current system does not permit candidate payments from the Fund
prior to January 1 of the election year.
Spending limits that do not meet realities of campaigns today — The
nationwide spending limit in the pre-nomination phase is half that
applicable to the general election, although the latter period
essentially comprises two to three months, while the former may
involve well over a year of actual campaigning. Furthermore, the
state limits, based on population, do not take into account the
disproportionate influence which early primary and caucus states
(like Iowa and New Hampshire) have in the pre-nomination phase.
Insufficient public funds to meet candidates’ needs — Current rules
allow contributions of $250 or less to be matched for primary
candidates. While this accounted for one-fourth of the $1,000 a
contributor used to be able to give, it is only one-eighth of the
$2,000 a contributor may now give, since enactment of the
Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA). In addition,
under BCRA’s prohibition of national parties’ raising and spending
soft money, a candidate who has gained acceptance as the party’s
presumptive nominee in the early spring and who has spent the
maximum allowed under the limits will not be able to count on the
party to continue activity on his or her behalf until the nominating
In 2003, two FEC Commissioners, Scott Thomas (D) and Michael Toner (R),
made recommendations (apart from the full Commission) for improving the system’s
functioning. They recommended: doubling the nationwide primary limit, which
would thus double the total amount of public funds a candidate may receive;
doubling the amount that may be matched, to $500; abolishing the state spending
limits (this has long been one of the annual legislative recommendations made by the
full FEC); increasing the eligibility standard for candidates (currently a candidate
may qualify under the threshold set in the 1970s, i.e., raising at least $100,000 in 20
states, with at least $5,000 from each); and raising the value of the checkoff from $3
to $5.4 To these proposals was added an additional one by Fred Wertheimer, of
Michael E. Toner, “Congress Should Overhaul Presidential Funding System,.” Roll Call,
Oct. 16, 2003, p. 10.
Democracy 21, to allow distribution of public funds before January 1 of the election
year to reflect the reality of a front-loaded primary calendar.5
On September 22, 2003, the Campaign Finance Institute’s Task Force on
Financing Presidential Nominations issued its report, in which the bipartisan panel
made suggestions for bolstering the public funding system. Concluding that “the
current system for financing presidential nominating campaigns is in serious
jeopardy,” the unanimous report stated:
The Task Force rejected a “do-nothing” approach out of hand. If the system is
not worth returning to its proper functions, the public funds may as well go back
to the Treasury. The Task Force did seriously think about whether the public
funding ought to continue at all. After reviewing the evidence, it concluded that
losing the system would be a loss for democracy. The system has helped to
support competition, restrain spending and enhance the value of small
contributions. And it has done all of this at a reasonable cost to taxpayers.6
Among its recommendations were doubling the primary spending limit to the same
level as in the general election, allowing the first $100 of an individual contribution
to be matched with public funds at a three-to-one ratio, and increasing the current tax
checkoff to $5 for individuals and $10 for joint filers.7
Although most of the recent commentaries and analyses have favored making
changes in the system to shore it up, some observers have taken a sharply different
approach to the desired solution. Declaring that “the presidential public funding
system has failed and should be killed by Congress,” a November 2003 analysis by
the Cato Institute concluded:
Presidential public financing has failed to meet its goals. The presidential
program has neither increased trust in government nor spurred electoral
competition in the primaries or the general elections. By reducing the rigors of
fundraising, the system has denied the electorate important information about
presidential candidates and given the major political parties significant subsidies
at taxpayer expense. The American taxpayer has rejected the presidential
program, as reflected by the lack of interest in the checkoff program. By 2008,
about half as many Americans as currently give private donations to candidates
or parties will participate in the presidential public financing system.8
Fred Wertheimer, “Just Whose Presidency Is This?,” Washington Post, Jan. 15, 2003, p.
Campaign Finance Institute, Participation, Competition, Engagement: How to Revive and
Improve Public Funding for Presidential Nomination Politics, report of the Campaign
Finance Institute Task Force on Presidential Nomination Financing, (Washington: 2003),
Executive Summary, p. xi.
Ibid., p. xii-xix.
John Samples, The Failures of Taxpayer Financing of Presidential Campaigns, Policy
Analysis no. 500, (Washington: Cato Institute, Nov. 23, 2003), pp. 1-2.
Congressional Response and Activity
Several attempts were made in recent Congresses to repeal presidential public
funding entirely. In the 102nd Congress, an amendment by Senator Mitch McConnell
was rejected by a 38-60 vote; a motion by Representative Joseph McDade failed in
the House in a 180-232 vote; and an amendment by Senator Phil Gramm was tabled
by 62-31.9 Two repeal attempts in the 104th Congress met with affirmative Senate
votes for retention: a 56-44 vote to restore the system targeted for elimination in the
Republican FY1995 budget;10 and a sense of the Senate resolution passed by voice
vote to drop such a proposal in the GOP’s FY1996 budget plan.11 While there have
been no major efforts or legislative votes to repeal the public funding system since
the 104th Congress, bills have been regularly introduced in succeeding Congresses
to repeal either the entire system or just the subsidies for nominating conventions.12
In the 108th Congress, the sponsors of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of
2002 introduced legislation — S. 1913 (McCain-Feingold) and H.R. 3617 (ShaysMeehan) — to bolster the public funding system, along the lines of
recommendations of the Campaign Finance Institute’s task force. Revised versions
of those bills were introduced in the 109th Congress — S. 3740 (Feingold) and H.R.
5905 (Meehan-Shays) — and included the following provisions:
! Raises national primary spending limit to $100 million through April
1 of election year, and $150 million total for primary, indexed for
! Eliminates state-by-state primary spending limits;
! Lowers amount of individual contributions subject to matching from
$250 to $200, while increasing rate of public funds match from
100% to 400% before March 31 of election year, after which rate of
match is lowered to 100% of any contribution up to $200;
! Increases qualifying threshold for matching funds to $25,000 in
contributions in each of 20 states, in amounts of $200 or less
! Moves starting date for payment of matching funds to July 1 of year
prior to election year;
! Increases amount of matching funds available to 80% of primary
! For participating candidate opposed by non-participant who makes
expenditures of more than 120% of primary spending limit,
Congressional Record, vol.137, May 22,1991, p.11961; vol. 137, Oct. 29,1991, pp. 2882328824; vol. 138, Sept. 25, 1992, pp. 27802-27803.
Congressional Record, vol. 141, May 24, 1995. p. 14244.
Congressional Record, vol. 142, May 23, 1996, p. 12349.
For example, bills to abolish entire system: H.R. 3525 (Doolittle), 108th Congress; H.R.
151 (Petri), H.R. 191 (Stump), H.R. 1444 (Doolittle), 107th Congress. Bills to abolish
convention subsidies: H.R. 45 (Bartlett, MD),109th Congress; H.R. 344 (Bartlett, MD), 108th
Congress; H.R. 27 (Bartlett, MD), 107th Congress.
increases primary spending limit to $150 million before April 1 and
$200 million for entire primary, with further spending by nonparticipant triggering further increases in spending limits and
additional matching funds;
! Raises general election spending limit to $100 million, indexed for
! Establishes the Friday before Labor Day as the uniform public funds
disbursement date for participating candidates;
! For participating candidate opposed by non-participant who raises
or spends more than 120% of combined primary and general election
spending limit, provides additional subsidy equal to subsidy already
received (for major party candidates);
! Repeals prioritization of nominating convention funding over
primary matching funds;
! Requires participating party committees to spend only public subsidy
amount on their presidential nominating conventions, i.e., prohibits
solicitation, receipt, and spending of any soft money on conventions;
! Requires candidates to agree to accept public financing for the
general election as condition for getting matching funds in primaries,
and requires acceptance of primary matching funds as a condition for
getting public funding in general election;
! Changes rules to fully count fundraising costs toward expenditure
! Requires Secretary of Treasury to issue regulations to ensure that
electronic software used in preparation or filing of tax returns does
not automatically accept or decline a check-off to Fund;
! Authorizes FEC to spend up to $10 million from Fund during a fouryear period on public education about the Fund;
! Allows Secretary of the Treasury to borrow funds in event of
estimated shortfall in the Fund;
! Requires disclosure of name, address, occupation, and employer of
each person making a bundled contribution (i.e., one arranged
through an intermediary) to a presidential campaign;
! Increases limit for coordinated spending by national party on behalf
of its presidential candidate to $25 million before April 1 and an
additional $25 million after April 1 until candidate is certified for
general election public funding (limits indexed for inflation), but
allow latter limit to be removed if non-participating primary
candidate raises or spends more than 120% of total primary spending
! Increases tax check-off from $3 to $10 for individuals and from $6
to $20 for couples, with future indexing for inflation;
Four other bills were introduced in the 109th Congress to address the presidential
public funding system. H.R. 45 (Bartlett) would end subsidies for nominating
conventions, while H.R. 3960 (Neugebauer) and H.R. 4759 (Doolittle) would end the
public funding system in its entirety. The fourth bill — H.R. 850 (Hoyer) — would
establish a uniform date for release of payments for general election candidates. That
bill was inspired by the 2004 situation in which Democratic nominee John Kerry had
to stretch his public funds over a period that was four weeks longer than for
Republican nominee George W. Bush, because of the timing of their respective
There is widespread agreement that the public funding system is not functioning
well and predictions that Congress will revisit this issue. Whether the system has
achieved enough of the objectives set out when it was first enacted and warrants
retention, in some amended fashion, or whether it has failed to accomplish its
original goals sufficiently to warrant the cost to the taxpayers is the fundamental
question facing Congress.