Adam Lioz’s recent article titled “Half a Step Forward and a Full Step Back: Can Connecticut Maintain its Leadership on Money in Politics?” calls attention to the on-going trend of weakening campaign finance regulations across the country. His argument included a litany of potential policy options aimed at reversing this trend. Some of the suggestions included eliminating spending caps for publicly funded candidates, a greater ratio of matching funds, and tax credits that incentivize more people to contribute.
While the policy alternatives put forth have interesting implications, an expansion of them is beyond the scope of what I seek to achieve today. Rather, my purpose here is to discuss the critical flaw imbedded within various calls for reform (including this one), which is that there is a conspicuous absence of any specific goals that reformers hope to achieve through policy change.
First, the foundational arguments upon which progressives pursue campaign finance reform continue to be unclear. For example, the author first speaks of Connecticut’s Citizens’ Election Program as welcomed solution to the “scandal and malfeasance” within Connecticut state politics in the early 2000’s. He then goes on to proclaim, “the point of the Citizens’ Election Program is to give ordinary citizens and not wealthy donors the power to control who runs for office and who wins elections—so that elected officials will be accountable to their voting constituents, not a separate class of “cash constituents.” The difference between these two purported goals are subtle, yet profound. The former purports strict campaign finance regulations to be a means of mitigating corruption and malfeasance. The latter professes notions of equality and constituent representation to be the primary goals of regulation.
Context also needs to be addressed. As the author notes, the Connecticut laws arose as a reaction to crisis. Thus it seems reasonable to assume that a decade later, it might be necessary to reevaluate the law to determine whether the changes were effective.
Lastly, the author refers to Senator Chris Murphy and his characterization of campaign fundraising as “soul-crushing.” Many officials have made similar complaints – often in reference to the time and energy they necessarily have to devote to raising money for their campaigns. I would agree with the author that this is problematic. However it remains unclear to me how a system by which officials are forced to spend a greater amount of time and effort in order to attract lower dollar contributions from individuals less likely to want to contribute is an efficient means of solving the problem.
Until there is agreement on specific goals that can be attained through policy change, I feel the general public will be unwilling to listen to their arguments, and will remain unconvinced that reformers are not fundamentally motivated by their own bias. For example, there was little complaint about notions of equality from progressives regarding the vast fundraising discrepancy between presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama.
As I noted on this topic in December, my criticism of progressive calls for reform is not to suggest that it is an unworthy cause or that it should be abandoned. Rather, it is a plead for reformers to eliminate fuzzy objectives that could best be described as “better government,” in favor of clear, established goals. Only then will reformers be able to demonstrate precise ways in which their policy proposals solve specific problems. And only then will they have a chance of garnering public support for their cause.
By Erinn Larkin, Compliance Director, PACs and Parties