The 2012 presidential race may soon claim another casualty: Publicly financed campaigns.
You know -- that $3 box you can check on your tax return to put money into a presidential campaign fund. Congress invented the check-off box in the mid-1970s to try and reduce the influence of private donations in presidential politics: Candidates could get money from taxpayers, but only if they agreed to limit spending and to forgo any private fundraising in the general election.
Alas, few taxpayers appear interested anymore. In 1976, roughly 25 percent of taxpayers checked the campaign fund box. This year, about 5 percent did. At the same time, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were able to raise five times as much money privately as they were eligible to collect from the public fund.
The result? Both skipped taxpayer funding, the first time that's happened for both major party candidates. And it seems unlikely major presidential candidates will ever turn to the fund again.
But if public financing of presidential campaigns is as dead as disco, the idea of a check-off box still seems too good to waste. Indeed, states use them for a variety of programs: veterans, disease research, wildlife preservation, even Olympic athletes.
So if the presidential fund is put out of its misery, we may want to consider alternatives, like a check-off trust fund for emergency disaster relief.
You've no doubt read about the cost from Hurricane Sandy -- $30 billion to $50 billion or more, a good portion of which will come from the federal treasury. Predictably, some taxpayers in areas not jeopardized by hurricanes are already grousing about bailing out shore-dwellers who will want to rebuild in the same storm-prone neighborhoods where the Atlantic rushed in.
Disasters are equal-opportunity offenders. New York and New Jersey bailed out Joplin, Mo., and Greensburg, Kan., after tornadoes. Heck, Kansas City turned to the feds for help after the 2002 ice storm. Floods, drought, earthquakes, blizzards -- all cost real money most years.
We're all in this wrath-of-God stuff together.
The government covers disaster relief through spending bills, but it always seems to run out too quickly. Negotiations over the fiscal cliff may be complicated by discussion of emergency spending for Sandy, because FEMA will likely lack enough funds to pay for needed relief.
A $3 check-off wouldn't help much. But raising it to, say, $30 -- and convincing half of all taxpayers to take part -- might yield $2 billion or so for a disaster fund, without increasing anyone's taxes.
That wouldn't cover Sandy, but it would pick up the occasional microburst. And it's my guess most Americans would prefer to help neighbors in an emergency and not presidential campaign commercials.
Those are a different kind of disaster, which the candidates appear perfectly capable of paying for themselves.