Washington (CNN) - The House of Representatives voted Wednesday to eliminate the federal public financing system that helps pay for presidential campaigns and political conventions.
The vote was 239-160. Ten Democrats voted with the Republicans to pass the bill.
The House bill, sponsored by Oklahoma Republican Rep Tom Cole, would eliminate the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. This voluntary public financing system was created in 1976, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, to lessen the influence of corporate money on campaigns. Taxpayers can check off a box on their tax returns directing $3 in federal money to the program. Candidates who apply for public financing must adhere to overall spending limits.
According to an estimate from the Congressional Budget Office released Monday, ending the program would save $617 million over the next ten years. Money currently in the fund–$195 million–cannot be used for other purposes, so zeroing out the program would transfer those dollars to the Treasury.
Cole pointed out that President Obama himself chose not to use the public financing fund in the 2008 general election. Cole said Obama admits the system needs to be reformed, but questioned how serious the president is about fixing it.
"If the President really cared about it that much he'd either have a proposal of his own or be willing to live under the system that he wants other people to adhere to," Cole told CNN after the House vote.
Democrats argued that system should be reformed, not repealed, because public financing puts candidate from both parties on a more even playing field. They maintain that ending the program would force candidates to depend on private sources to finance their campaigns, giving corporations more power in the political arena.
During the House debate California Democrat Lynn Woolsey said, "Special interest money is having a corrosive effect on our Democracy, eating away at the people's confidence in their government and their elected representatives. The one beacon of light in this system is the public financing of presidential campaigns. It is, I would remind everyone, a voluntary system."
Pressed why Republicans want to get rid of a program that's optional, Cole told CNN the public financing system was created before campaigns starting raising contributions on the internet, and it's not needed anymore.
"The President himself has shown how obsolete this system is. It's very easy for people who want to give to any candidate to do that," Cole said.
The Obama administration released a statement officially opposing the bill on Tuesday.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell introduced an identical version of the bill on Wednesday. In a speech on the Senate floor McConnell argued Americans want to reduce the deficit, not underwrite campaigns. "In a time of exploding deficits and record debt the last thing the American people want right now is to provide what amounts to welfare for politicians."
Public Finance Action Fund, a non partisan group pushing for public financing at the state and federal levels, released a statement opposing GOP efforts to dismantle the system. "These efforts are not about saving taxpayer money, they are about giving corporate donors even more access than they enjoy today. We hope these measures don't advance any further."
According to the Federal Election Commission, which administers the program, participation among taxpayers has dropped significantly since it started – with nearly 29 percent of taxpayers checking off money for the fund in 1980 to about 8 percent in 2007.
Cole said he's opposed to any public financing of political campaigns or party conventions, but he conceded that since it's the law he understands why GOP candidates still apply for the public money.
Two potential GOP 2012 presidential hopefuls - Indiana Rep Mike Pence and Minnesota Rep Michele Bachmann - both voted for the bill on Wednesday.
During the 2008 presidential election cycle the federal fund paid out $139 million, down from $240 million in the 2004 election. The FEC reports that this was the lowest drop since the start of the program.