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Want to reform campaign finance and reduce corruption? Here’s how.

- October 26, 2015
(Bea Wiharta/Reuters)

The Monkey Cage often hosts point-counterpoint articles on campaign finance reform. Here’s the classic problem: How do you reconcile, on the one hand, the need for money to support free speech and robust political campaigns — and, on the other hand, the possibility that rich donors might unfairly influence or corrupt officeholders? Reform advocates usually emphasize one concern or the other.

On one side, some defend the approach taken in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002, popularly known as McCain-Feingold. That law aimed to end corruption by limiting how much money individuals could donate to political parties. It capped contributions to federal candidates to as low as $2,000 per election.

On the other side, some argue that such a low ceiling on donations is unrealistic. Modern political campaigns can cost up to $5 million for a Congressional race and more than $1 billion for a presidential one. Those who want to influence politics, this group argues, will just find other ways to pour money into the system, resulting in unintended consequences like super PACs.

[Which kinds of campaign donations lead to more polarized legislatures?]

Stronger political parties could bring us a more practical and pluralist approach to governing

But is there another way? A provocative new paper from two election law experts at the Brennan Center, known for promoting political equality, suggests some potential common ground. Authors Ian Vandewalker and Daniel Weiner want to strengthen political parties, arguing that those institutions are best able to hold candidates accountable. As a result, the reforms that they suggest involve channeling money to candidates through the parties instead of interest groups.

Here’s the idea: Party institutions are vital in reaching voters and getting citizens involved in campaigns. But parties, the authors argue, are being eclipsed by the unlimited finances of “shadow” groups supported by billionaires. Vandewalker and Weiner argue that the formal party committees are better for democracy because they have strong electoral incentives to be responsive to the broadest set of citizens possible. Historically, they’ve worked to engage citizens in volunteering, attending party events and, most important, voting.

Interest groups, in contrast, put more emphasis on a narrow set of issues tailored to their select group of (usually wealthy) members. For this reason, the authors strongly suggest allowing parties to raise more funds by including them in a small-donor “matching” programs like that in New York City, which multiplies a small private donation with public money. In addition to sending more financing to the parties, the authors would reduce or remove current restrictions on allowing the parties to support their candidates with more money and in-kind support.

That’s a surprising change of heart. The Brennan Center advocates for campaign finance reform. Until now, Brennan has argued for more restrictions on how much parties could raise from donors and spend on candidates.

Others have made similar arguments. The idea is that strengthening political parties can reduce the kind of political fragmentation that allows interest groups to control the governing process. In this view, if party leaders had the financial power to reward and punish extremists, they might be better able to negotiate bargains in the public interest with members of the opposite party.

Outside Washington, revitalized parties could encourage greater political pluralism. That is to say, when parties function as “big tents,” they can be moderating forces. “Big tent” parties affirm and balance the diverse values and interests in American society. They do that through brokering agreements among competing groups and forming broad governing coalitions.

Common ground on reform

We agree. In our recent book, we show that financially strong parties may help tone down extremism because parties consider who is most likely to get elected in the general election — and therefore invest in the more moderate candidates, candidates who the more activist donors might reject as wishy-washy. That would result in a Congress that’s less polarized, more pragmatic, and more willing to find compromises to get things done.

For all these reasons, the Brennan Center paper provides common ground on reform. Their position aligns with that of scholars and practitioners who argue political parties should be allowed to raise more money and support candidates without many constraints.

Where we differ with Vandewalker and Weiner somewhat is how political parties would get their funds. We think the contribution limits to parties should be raised beyond $33,400 per year to $100,000 or even more. That way, parties can compete effectively against super PACs and other groups.

The Brennan Center disagrees. To reduce the potential for excessive donor influence, it wants to keep the limits and encourage small donors through a public subsidy program that matches and multiplies small contributions. We’re not against public financing of parties. But we are skeptical that a small donor program will raise enough funds. We believe it will attract the ideological donors in the parties.

Others have suggested major public grants (see Pildes) to the parties, or giving vouchers to citizens who can confer them on favored candidates, parties and interest groups (See Cain; Hasen; Ackerman and Ayres; and Foley).

Persuading the public on reform

But will the public support the changes for party financing recommended by the Brennan Center? On the one hand, Americans intensely dislike the current campaign finance system. Roughly 85 percent of voters say the system needs fundamental changes or must be completely rebuilt.

On the other hand, the public does not rank reform as a high priority. In fact, most people know little about how the system works.

This should provide an opening for reformers to build a case for a more fair and accountable system. But will doing so work?

In the last part of our book, we wanted to see whether educating people about how political parties invest in campaigns would influence how people believe they should be regulated. So we included an experiment on a YouGov survey of American adults. For half of the sample, we asked whether they supported limiting how much different groups (political parties, unions, advocacy groups, and businesses) could contribute to candidates. For the other half of the sample, we asked individuals the same question, but also first told them how those groups tend to use their donations. For example, we told them that political parties “tend to contribute mostly to moderate candidates in competitive elections,” that unions “tend to support liberal candidates,” that advocacy groups “tend to contribute mostly to more extreme candidates,” and that businesses “tend to support candidates who currently occupy the office (i.e., incumbents).”

We expected that empirical evidence might change opinions about what limits were needed. But we were wrong, as you can see in the figure below. The y-axis plots the proportion of respondents who said they either wanted no limits or high limits on that group (as opposed to low limits or an outright ban on contributions from that group). The x-axis simply compares those in the uninformed or control group to those who were educated about contribution patterns, or the treatment group.

LARAJA treatment_effects

But there are no clear differences in support for de-regulating parties (or any other group, for that matter) when people learn what parties do with their contributions. That suggests that more information will not change minds about whether to remove or loosen party limits.

Why? We decided to examine what principles people think are most important in reforming campaign finance. And so in another survey, we asked exactly that. Reducing corruption and preventing unequal influence were the highest priorities. Ensuring transparency, promoting competition, and preserving freedom were not ranked as highly.

Since promoting competition is not particularly important for Americans, they may not be particularly moved by our findings that parties tend to invest in competitive elections whereas businesses mostly support incumbents.

The path to reform

So how can groups like the Brennan Center suggest reforms that support political parties and win public support? Two points are important here. First, the public already supports reducing regulations on parties (even without telling them that parties help moderates). Note that almost half of voters said they would support no limits or high limits for parties. Far fewer voters supported high limits or no limits on unions, businesses, and advocacy groups. Clearly, voters see these groups as quite different.

Second, groups like the Brennan Center should emphasize that stronger parties will be better able to stand up to dark money groups financed by unaccountable wealthy patrons. That will appeal directly to the public desire to reduce corruption and limit excess influence.

Elections have been swamped with outside group money. That’s because current rules allow super PACs to raise unlimited amounts of money — but a party committee can only accept $33,400. The party limit might seem generous to the average voter, but not when you consider the cost of mobilizing U.S. voters.

In Britain, there are no limits on donations to political parties — even though political spending is much greater in the United States than in Britain. One estimate suggests that the 2010 U.S. congressional elections cost 80 times — 80 times! — more  than British elections for Parliament in that same year.

The high demand for money in U.S. elections combined with unrealistically low contribution limits to parties and candidates results in the siphoning of money toward super PACs and other opaque groups. Thomas Edsall describes this situation as a “kind of lawlessness” with a two-class structure of election financing. The first is the traditional federally regulated system that encourages small donors. The second is a combination of super PACs and tax exempt groups that can operate without contribution limits (and often without revealing donors), supported by the most wealthy citizens and interest groups.

Not only must reformers tout the benefits of financially strong parties, but they must also convince voters that parties will not simply become conduits for rich donors. This is where Brennan Center’s promotion of public financing for parties might gain some traction. It allays concerns about the corrupting influence of large donations to parties.

To its credit, the Brennan Center paper avoids talk of sweeping reforms and constitutional amendments, which are untested and unlikely to pass. Critically, the proposals create space for bipartisan compromise since leadership in both major parties would prefer to have campaign funds flow through party organizations they control. We hope leaders recognize this opportunity and begin to give shape to reforms that strengthen the political parties.

Ray La Raja and Brian Schaffner are professors in political science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Their book, “Campaign Finance and Political Polarization: When Purists Prevail,” was recently published by the University of Michigan Press.