A Better Way To Do Campaign Finance Reform

~by Dan Miller

Elias wrote a great post about campaign finance reform, and I think it raised some important issues.  But I think this discussion–like most discussions of campaign finance–missed a key point.  Many people believe that any significant restriction on campaign finance is necessarily a huge imposition on freedom of speech, and strikes at the very heart of the first amendment.  Another large group of people believes that the wealthy and connected abuse the campaign finance system to essentially bribe politicians and secure unfair advantage for themselves, and that this represents a breakdown of government that needs to be rectified.  Both sides have a point.  But I believe there’s a way to satisfy both liberals and libertarians, and increase the quality of our politics to boot.  The key is to realize that electoral spending is pretty damn insignificant in the context of the governmental budget.

For starters, I think we should concede the obvious: a lot of current campaign “donations” are investments in disguise.  Boeing gave $31,750 to Buck McKeon (R-CA) and $20,000 to Norm Dicks (D-WA) because they’re high-ranking members of defense committees, not out of some principled support for the ideological stances of either.  Dicks and McKeon solicited that money because it will help them win election and gain influence, and Boeing gave it to them because it thinks it will make more money in the long run than not giving it.  It’s a business expense, same as a corporate retreat or any other expenditure (even if we can’t trace any specific action on the part of the Congresscritters in question to any specific donation, just like we can’t credit any particular dollar in Boeing’s profits to the team-building exercises on the retreat).  Even large donations that are made to sincerely advance a candidate’s ideology–like those from an Adelson or a Soros–reflect wealth buying inordinate political power.  And inequality in the political sphere is troubling in a way that inequality in Bentley consumption is not.  Hopefully this is all still relatively non-controversial.

 

So there’s a demand for this money–from lawmakers who are desperate for cash, and in a position of power over potential donors–and a supply of it, from donors who frequently see massive returns on their spending,r simply have more money than they know what to do with (Adelson et al).  Until now, most of the efforts have been focused on trying to reduce the supply of cash.  Limit contributions to candidates! Get rid of super PACs! But it’s clear this strategy has reached the end of its rope.  Citizens United and the like have basically gutted the post-2002 campaign finance regime.  And even if that ruling were to be overturned, as a civil libertarian I get extremely nervous about regulations that get that close to the core of the First Amendment, even if they’re done with the best of intentions.  It’s the equivalent of risky brain surgery on democracy, not a first-best outcome.

Luckily, there’s a better option.  Rather than focusing on supply, we can focus on demand.  Politicians want money to win elections and influence colleagues; but they’re not picky about where it comes from.  If we can introduce significant sources of money into politics that are less inherently corrupting than Boeing, we can dilute its influence.  To introduce some numbers: in 2010, total spending by all federal candidates was $4 billion.  Presidential years will obviously be more expensive–let’s say $6 billion for a presidential cycle, or about $1 billion for each major party candidate plus all the Congressional spending.  That works out to $10 billion over a 4-year cycle, or about $2.5 billion/year.  If we were to introduce double this level of spending ($5 billion/year), it would amount to a significant program, but certainly not one that would break the bank–it’s simply not comparable to new entitlement programs, tax cuts, projected defense increases, or any other truly big-ticket government expenditure.  However, it would have a massive impact on the amount and source of funds that are available to politicians.  It would make it possible to run a competitive campaign without needing signoff from the hyperrich or the corporate boardroom.  It would finally bring about detente in the campaign finance wars.

How can we introduce this kind of money into the political system? There are a bunch of options.  Matching funds for small donors.  A Voting With Dollars scheme where every citizen is given the ability to channel donations to the candidates or political groups of their choice.  Whatever.  The Roberts court has placed some restrictions on how public financing can be disbursed, but it’s pretty easy to design a system or systems that works within these restrictions.  And doing so would increase political equality, allow a slew of voices into the political system that are currently muted, and not hamper anyone’s right to free speech.  The downside from a libertarian perspective would of course be the expenditure, but I think it’s easy to argue that the benefits of such a scheme would outweigh the (fairly minimal) costs.  And from a liberal perspective, this offers a way forward on campaign finance reform that has much less chance of being shot down by the courts or impinging on free speech.

What do you think?

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43 thoughts on “A Better Way To Do Campaign Finance Reform

    • Not necessarily.  In a lot of races, especially Congressional, the barrier isn’t that the incumbent has so much money as that the challenger has so little.  It’s a matter of making it over the hurdle to the point where you can run a credible campaign.  Which isn’t to say that every district is winnable–but with a decent candidate and a sufficient sum, a lot more districts are 40-percentable (i.e. a challenger can get close enough to scare).

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      • What you and Pat below are forgetting is that political campaigning is a business in this country, a multi-billion dollar business. What happens when demand goes up and supply remains relatively stable, in business?

        Look, I’m all for the government providing more funding to make up for the fact that some candidates can’t afford anything. But now the woman running against the previously broke candidate not only has enough money to run the same ads, but to run them twice as often, and to run twice as many different ads, and to put up two signs in front of every one sign that the previously drunk candidate puts up, and to run several more polls that determine what voters want to hear and the precise wording in which they want to hear it in. What’s more, she’s going to be willing to pay extra to get the best consultants, the best pollsters, the best ad firms, and so on. So your plan is nice, but it accomplishes only a little. If you want to even the playing field and diminish the influence of money to any meaningful extent, the only real way to do that is to do precisely what you’re trying to avoid doing with this plan.

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    • I dunno that this is universally true, Chris.

      I expect diminishing returns after a certain baseline of spending is met.  You have to spend more than your opponent, but your opponent also has to spend little enough for your more to be significant.

      At some point, probably measurable (somebody’s certainly already done this research), you reach message saturation and you can’t really get your message out any more.  If both candidates are at or near that level of spending, additional spending isn’t going to help either of them any.

      There’s certainly a difference between a candidate who spends $60 million on the CA state governor race and one who spends $12 million.  I’m not sure there’s a major difference between someone who spends $60 million and someone who spends $45 million… and I highly suspect if you spend $50 million and your opponent spends $50 – $100 million, they’re not going to see much in the way of an advantage at all.

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    • Chris put it pithily but accurately. There isn’t a ceiling to money; more will generally trump less. Look at student loans and tuition: the easy availability of student loans didn’t higher education to the masses, it just brough gigantic increases in tuition.

      So I fear that the desired outcome would not materialize. Then there’s the cost side of the ledger. Indeed the program would not be very big in the great scheme of things but I blanch at the idea of it none the less. For one thing the program would be written… by politicians. What it seems to me this would amount to would be some kind of status quos enforcement mechanism; yet another means by which the dominant two parties would retain advantage over independant or third party candidates.

      Coupled with my doubts about the outcome this makes me feel that on balance this program would likely not advance the causes it seeks to advance.

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  1. I like the spirit of it, and agree with Dan (and disagree with others) that the floor is a big part of the problem. My main concern is how it is disbursed. The devil is in that particular detail.

    If you try to do it based on popularity (including voted dollars or small donations), they have to raise money from Boeing to campaign for the popularity to get the money to take them through the election. It’s not clear to me how much of an improvement that is.

    That’s my main concern.

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  2. If bigger money were always better and biggest money were always best, then California’s Proposition 16 would have passed and Meg Whitman would be the Governor.

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  3. I find a far easier fix:

    1)  Every politician gets X dollars to spend.

    2)  Every politician gets Y minutes of broadcast time on any FCC lisencned network to use as they wish.

    3)  Every commercial that is run in any venue ~must~ have its funders on file and it’s facts must be accurate.  Any network or publication that fails to maintain these records is open to sanction as well as individual libel/ slander suits.

    4)  Any politician who in any way receives any form of cash or other gifts while in office is summarily removed from his or her post for bribery and corruption and cannot hold public office at any level at or above the level from which they are evicted.

    Plain and simple.  I read a book in college following recruits at the NYPD.  They were down right ~paranoid~ about Internal Affairs to the point where one cadet put down his sandwhich and walked out of a shop.  Why?  Because the owner insisted on giving him a discount.  But the rules were clear, concise, and non-bending.  Any… ANY form of bribe or gift and you were out of the program.  Why risk your entire carreer over $2 off on a sub?

    I would ask the same of any politician.

    And if people want to speak up, they’re welcome to.  Just put your name on what you say and let the rest of us be able to hold you accountable if it’s bold faced lies.

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    • I’d have major problems with 1 Either you define politician as anyone who asks to put their name on the ballot. In which case sooner or later everyone will realise that here is  a way to get the government to buy them a new suit and hire their friends as campaign consultants. Or you come up with some definition that limits who is allowed the funds and then you are back to giving some candidates a financial advantage.

      Then there is the issue that without something like  voting with dollars some taxpayers will be financing candidates they hate. Not a system that will be popular I think.

      2 I think has analogous problems given someone is buying airtime to distribute to candidates, even if it is the networks paying with the loss of revenue from donated time.

      3. Any venue could be hard to police, I like the idea but every flyer, every noticeboard in an office or social club?

      4. I agree with just 2 caveats, removal should follow some kind of finding of guilt based on evidence – even politicians don’t deserve to be ruined forever by unsupported claims, and you need some exemption for low value non cash gifts from immediate family (spouses and children) – “Daddy I made you a picture” is not bribery.

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      • 1)  Running for office with 0.1% of registered voters signatures on a petition.  Petition  forms are provided with the caveat those those deemed by a court of law to be abusing the process will be held in contempt.

        2)  If you want FCC certification to broadcast then you can plan to give up some air time to candidates.  Specifics can be worked out later based on time slots and locality.

        3)  Now this I see as the easiest because you’re not going to need to overly police advertisments with profoundly low exposure.  Does it really matter if there’s a typo on the flier at the gym?  But we should not be turning a blind eye to outright lies posted on national programming at 8pm.  It almost comes down to “do you want to risk that particular circular being audited for accuracy?”  And as for the grass roots fliers, apply the laws we have.  If you have a flier that the, say, Obama camp did not approve but it says “Approved by Obama for Re-election” then that’s fraud.  That’s already a crime.  Why do we need new laws when we can just use the ones we have an, you know ACTUALLY prosecute them?

        4)  Okay.  Exceptions for non cash familial presents under $30.

        But that’s it.  IF you’re a US Senator, you know what, you can do without Christmas presents during your term.  You’ll live.  You might even set an example for others.  You might inspire another generation who sees public service as a noble sacrifice rather than a lucrative gig.

         

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  4. My dear fellow, you really must be joking. The problem is, and this speaks not only to the colonies but to most nations in the world, the presence of money and the potential for “later benefits” being used to bribe the public officials.

    Adjudicating the campaign’s finance, so that only the candidates speak for themselves and ONLY through their designated campaigns, with a limit to funding, would be sensible. Even more sensible would be to eliminate the potential for millionaire spoilers and simply allow all candidates a particular sum, no more and no less, disbursed for the purpose of campaigning and thus require that their message, rather than money, do the talking.

    Sadly, it appears such common-sense measures are beyond the grasp of your government, since we now are witnessing the rise of the “not coordinated, with a wink and a nod” structures of unlimited bribery funding…

     

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    • For this to be effective, you would have to eliminate free speech. Preventing Koch and Soros from running ads exalting the virtues of their preferred candidate or exposing their flaws. Preventing the NRA or MoveOn from advocacy. Preventing Boeing and Unions from advocacy (or playing favorites between the two). All of these organizations being made of people.

      That is all difficult to square with the First Amendment. That’s why it hasn’t been done yet.

       

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    • We should also do everything we can to make sure that the network news and newspapers don’t provide “in-kind” advertising inadvertently through their so-called “coverage”.

      Preventing the newspapers from reporting on the candidates would suffice.

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  5. “MONEY = POWER”

    We should put up that slogan somewhere all Americans can see. We need to realize it’s a stupid game and all money does is go get more money.

    Maybe we can burn it into the face of the Moon?

    Or print it on our money? It’d be empowering for the everyman.

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    • I should add, sometimes it seems we’re all just dancing around the topic, at least in the public discourse. Why are people allowed buy ads on during campaign season?

      Of course, if the Bill of Rights has this unintended consequence which allows some self-destruct sequence to get started, maybe we should flip it off. Either that or wait for the American experiment to fail.

      But perhaps starting from scratch would be simpler. We could have meaningful state boundaries perhaps.

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      • “Why are people allowed buy ads on during campaign season?”

        I believe there was a time when your financial laws prohibited that in your country, but that your supreme court ruled the practice to be unconstitutional. Or am I mistaken? Perhaps someone with more complete knowledge than I can provide the history?

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      • Why are people allowed buy ads on during campaign season?

        Free. Speech. Silencing the sounding out of political views, even if you’re doing it uniformly, is hard to square with the very fundamentals of the notion of free speech.

        Speak freely! But not where anyone can hear you (ie in advertisement form)! If it’s about politics, anyway. During the time these ads – this speech – matter most, that is.

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          • Some of it may well be bribery but not all of it. Now, how do you eliminate the speech without eliminating the bribery? You don’t equate the two, but how do you tell them apart, from a law-drafting standpoint? Trampling speech on the basis that it *might* be bribery is… problematic.

             

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            • From my perspective, it seems the appearance of corruption is a perfectly reasonable legal standard. Reading some of the news recently, it appears that the decision by your Supreme Court went to rather absurd lengths to claim, as justification for equating speech with money, that there was no possible way that the money raised the appearance of corruption.

              Over here, we have something called the “smell test”, which says roughly that if it smells like two day old fish left out in the sun, something is wrong… and trampling bribery despite a disingenuous and rather unbelievable claim it is instead “speech” seems again to be no problem to me.

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              • So you would eliminate the right to free speech based on odor?

                Who gets to decide what smells and what doesn’t? Or do you simply silence everybody except who the government decides qualifies as “media”? Or would you advocate for a media blackout as well?

                 

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                • Well over here, we have registration for actual journalists, we have laws covering news coverage, and if someone feels the news programmes are producing nonfactual material or unduly slanting it, then they have legal recourse to challenge it.

                  It’s worked rather well for us. Certainly much better than the mad-grab which has produced some of the absolutely disgusting things I have heard clipped from your not at all disguised “talk radio” programmes and some of the amazing distortions I have seen on your Fox News website, which often produces headlines that have absolutely no relation to the article when they wish to outright slander someone or just insist on a tilted impact unhindered by facts.

                   

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                • The notion of the government deciding who does and does not qualify as a journalist is… not workable over here. There have been some efforts with regard to journalistic shield laws. They have not inspired confidence.

                  So what happens over there if a journalist’s license is revoked?

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  6. The perpetual cry of the government class for government financing of incumbents and striction of angel donors for challengers.

    Telling people they cannot buy a radio ad or send out a mailing with their own money, that they an only do it if they collect the money in some government mandated way, is censorship.

    The one form of campaign finance regulation that would not be censorship is to limit what incumbents can spend or raise directly on their own, by making it part of their employment contract.

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  7. Sometimes in thinking about the corruption & campaign money issue, I move towards taking the snark that politicians should be required to wear the logos of their sponsors like NASCAR drivers and giving it a serious whirl.

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  8. As an advocate of the KISS principle, why can’t we keep the process as simple as possible by just lifting the limits on donations to the campaigns and parties?  As long as we have full transparency about who is donating and how much, it drains funds away from PACS since donors would rather contribute to candidates or the political parties if they had an option.  That’s where their first dollars go anyway.

    And best of all, you don’t have to crap on the 1st Amendment.

    Every time we’ve tried to “reform” campaign finance we’ve ended up making the system so complicated that  we’ve created a morass that can only be negotiated by specialized lawyers  Maybe we should go in a different direction..

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    • This would do basically nothing about the problems of corruption or the appearance thereof, or wealthy domination of the political conversation.  You may not believe these are problems–but a ton of people do.  And your coalition isn’t large enough to take action on its own (neither is the opposing coalition, of people who believe in strict donation caps.  Both sides block action that’s not in their favored direction, but can’t muster the votes for their proposed solution.  Story of American politics in the 21st century, I guess, but I think on this issue it might be possible to actually compromise–package a reduction in donation restrictions with real public financing.

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  9. 1. If you increase the number of competitive elections by the strategic use of limited proportional representation in “more local” elections, it has the same effect as CFR and makes CFR more feasible and enforceable.  This is what I write about often at “A New Kind of Party”.  

    1a. This is because more competitive elections will force intere$t$ to hedge more and accept a lower and/or more variable return.

    1b. It will help elect 3rd parties who benefit the most from the regulation of $peech and are the right people to administer CFRegulations.

    2. With 1. more competitive elections, 2. increased transparency, 3. progressive taxation of all forms of $peech, 4. most of which should be channeled through party leaders, not SuperPACs, whose actions are relatively public, 5. Some subsidies perhaps as described above, and 6.  Common sense regulations then our system would be a better balance of popular democracy and kleptocracy, or the democracy of the dollar that is a critical but poorly understood ingredient in any Capitalist system.

    dlw

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