Posts Tagged ‘Campaign Finance Research’

The latest challenge to McCain-Feingold: McCutcheon v. FEC

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A recent article by in the Huffington Post by Jay Pinho alludes to the thorny spot that progressives have found themselves in vis-a-vis campaign finance rules, ever since the Supreme Court decided the Citizens United case in 2010.  He discusses the recent victory of Robin Kelly the IL-2 special primary election, and the instrumental role that Michael Bloomberg played in Kelly’s electoral success.  Bloomberg flooded the race with money in order to make good on his promise to support gun control advocates.  The point he makes is this: how do Democrats celebrate these progressive victories, while at the same time, work to reverse the rules the allowed them the power to get their message out in the first place?

Pinho also mentions the frustration felt among progressives in knowing that the Supreme Court has the potential to further roll back campaign spending rules when it hears the McCutcheon vs. FEC case in October.  He states, “in conjunction with the Court’s notorious Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision from 2010, which lifted the ban on corporate expenditures and led to an explosion of outside spending during last year’s election campaigns, such a ruling in McCutcheon would augur a decisive transformation of American electoral norms — from “one person, one vote” to something approaching ‘one dollar, one vote’.”

The McCutcheon case challenges the constitutionality of individual aggregation limits, which refer to the maximum amount that one individual can contribute to parties, PACs, and candidates during any two year election cycle.  For the 2013-2014 election cycle, this amount is $123,200.  Of this amount, no more than $48,600 can go to candidates; the remainder must go to either PACs or party committees.  This limit should not be confused with the maximum amount that candidates are allowed to receive for their campaigns, which remains unchallenged, and at $2600 per election.  If the Supreme Court sides with McCutcheon, then this limit will be abolished, and individuals will be free to contribute the maximum allowable amount to as many candidates as they choose.   Thus, the case can perhaps be better  understood as an attempt to abolish the limit on the number of candidates individuals can support, rather than the amount of money they can spend per se.

There are several reasons that progressives should take pause before automatically lambasting all individuals, organizations, or proposals to alter extant campaign finance regulation.  First, the practical effects of eliminating individual aggregation amounts is likely to be minimal.  At the current limit, individuals can “max-out,” in other words, contribute the maximum amount of $2600 to both the primary and general elections of a particular candidate, to no more than nine congressional contenders during a two year period.   Of the very small percentage of Americans that contribute to congressional elections at all, an even smaller amount max-out to any one candidate.  The number of individuals who max-out to nine candidates, and exhaust their $48,600 allowance, is minuscule in proportion.

Second, if candidates are to become less reliant on Super PACs and other outside groups, then measures that make it easier to raise money in a transparent way, and in accordance with contribution limits, could be a beneficial thing.  It is impossible for one organization, party, or even Congress, to control the political messages that make it to the airwaves.  What these organizations can control is who is accountable for the messages that are made, and their level of transparency.   Unlike ad hoc organizations like Super PACs, elected officials and candidates are accountable for the statements they make and their legitimacy is dependent upon it.  Therefore measures that empower candidates relative to outside organizations perhaps deserve a second look by progressives that desire an improved campaign finance system.

 

Hulu, YouTube, and Campaign Finance Laws

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A recent article in the New York Times titled “Technology Leaders Endorse Effort to Overhaul Campaign Finance,” reports that a group technology leaders and venture capitalists have come together to endorse an overhaul of the State of New York’s campaign finance system.   The group is urging Governor Cuomo to pass public financing legislation modeled after the current program in NYC .  The system provides matching funds to candidates that attract small dollar donations.  The authors argue elections are “dominated by a small group of affluent campaign donors, professional influence-peddlers and deep-pocketed vested special interests” and “more often than not, big money gets its way.”

The rhetorical denouncement of “special interests” is popular in both parties, and the reason is clear: it is antithetical to the notion of the “common interest” that underlies the foundation of our democracy.   Walter Lippmann once said that in American politics, the “public interest” can be likened to an all-powerful, “god-like” conception.   In this case, the authors seek to strengthen the public interest by implementing a system they argue will reduce undue influence of big business, enhance participation, and strengthen democracy.

The reality is that the average person will never contribute to a political campaign, even if their funds are matched.  The percent of Americans that do contribute is quite small.  While the intent among reformers is to balance some of the disparities that exist between the wealthy and less wealthy in society, what they will in fact be doing is balancing the disparity within one small part of society: the universe of political contributors.  A matching system would grant “enhanced representation” to a specific group, in this case, politically-motivated yet resource-poor contributors.

The example they note is NYC system, and yet in the most recent mayoral election of 2009, NYC witnessed the lowest voter turnout its had since the 1960’s.  Still, there may be inherent value in decreasing the wealth and power disparity within the universe of contributors by empowering small dollar donors.  What effect will this have?  One key characteristic that distinguishes high dollar donors from low dollar donors (in both parties) is that low dollar contributors are more ideological and partisan.  Thus it is not unreasonable to question whether empowering the universe of small donors could lead to higher levels of polarization.  Polarization of course, is one of the main reasons why public confidence in government among Americans is so low, as the authors note.

All this is not to suggest that reform should be abandoned, or that small dollar contributors should be marginalized; quite the opposite.   It is a call to abandon rhetoric that depicts money in politics as inherently evil, and public financing solutions as inherently good.  Lippmann was on to something when he referred to the public interest as god-like, because like a god, the public interest is not an empirical entity.  It is impossible to know what an unbiased system would look.  The group noted  here, for example, includes venture capitalists and CEOs of companies including Foursquare, Gilt, Etsy, Meetup, Twitter, Tumblr, and others. Ironically if they are successful, they will have provided one more data point to their key complaint, which is that big money tends to get its way.

In order to avoid these inevitable contradictions, reformers should focus their efforts on procedure, and on actual effects that reform will have on how campaigns operate.  They need to clearly link how rule X leads to outcome Y and has Z detrimental implications.  Without concrete examples, no amount of decrying “the evil of money in politics,” even after a substantial change in the dynamics of money in politics like Citizens United, is going to incite public support.

Links:

(1) http://www.brookings.edu/research/books/1999/new-liberalism

(2) http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/L/bo6683614.html

 

Yes, Moneyed Interests Gained an Advantage After Citizens United, But Why Else is it Important?

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Considerable attention has been given to groups that gained a direct advantage as a result of the Citizens United case.  Significantly less has been devoted to understanding how the case affected other political institutions and what the implications may be.  Political parties are the wheels of democracy; they mobilize voters,  structure vote choices, recruit candidates, and function as a means of turning political preferences into policy.  In this article in Campaigns and Elections, Neil Reiff discusses how parties have been negatively impacted by recent campaign finance regulation (specifically since the McCain-Feingold Act in 2002) and why the outcome of the Citizens United case further exacerbates the problem.