Politics

Why Can’t (and Won’t) Control Campaign Spending

Once upon a time long long ago, I believed in the capacity for campaign finance reform to fix our broken political system. While I continue to believe it is possible in the abstract, it is practically not feasible. We lack the political will. Apparently, I am not alone. The New York Times quotes FEC chairwoman Ann Ravel as saying, “The likelihood of the laws being enforced is slim,” meaning that there is little the FEC can do to regulate campaign money.

Much of my early research was dedicated to the premise that political science was too often used to defend an untenable status quo. Showing correlations between money and votes, for example, scholars would claim that campaign spending limits in combination with public funding of elections would undermine competitive elections and democratic political participation. Connecting campaign spending to individual survey responses further purported democratic benefits such as more knowledgeable voters (as measured by name recognition and recall) and greater self-reported interest in the campaign. Campaigns unquestionably cost money, so limiting spending could, in theory, adversely affect democratic political outcomes.

All of these propositions can be fairly questioned. Cutting spending to zero would make it impossible to campaign, but how much money was necessary to run a competitive election? Even the work defending the role of money in the political process acknowledges that campaign spending is subject to the law of diminishing returns but what at point did “the law of diminishing marginal returns” mean that additional spending was no longer effective in persuading or mobilizing voters? Moreover, if campaign spending might inform voters, its ability to do so was dependent on the clarity and honesty of campaign messages. Candidates committed to obscuring their message might just as effectively misinform voters or persuade voters via deceptive manipulations. What good was additional campaign spending absent a thoughtful framing of political decisions?f my interest in the substantive arguments about the effect of money on politics remains strong, my interest in campaign reform has waned over time. Not because I believe it is theoretically impossible, but because it is practically impossible. The courts will inevitably undermine reform by equating money with political speech. Strategic political actors, candidates, political parties, and “fat cat” donors will “cheat” by pushing the legal limits until they are no longer recognizable. Enforcement will be minimal or nonexistent. And, the voters won’t do anything about it either because they are mired in apathy or because they are mostly concerned about whether or not their side “won” the election.  On this count, the Democratic Party is far more frustrating. With the rare exception of John McCain, Republicans typically don’t bother pretending that they believe restricting campaign money is important, necessary, or desirable. Democrats, on the other hand, pretend to care but mainly to have “reform” as an issue, not actually engage in reform.

While my interest in substantive arguments about the effect of money on politics remains strong, my interest in campaign reform has waned over time. Not because I believe it is theoretically impossible, but because it is practically impossible. The courts will inevitably undermine reform by equating money with political speech. Strategic political actors, candidates, political parties, and “fat cat” donors will “cheat” by pushing the legal limits until they are no longer recognizable. Enforcement will be minimal or nonexistent. And, the voters won’t do anything about it either because they are mired in apathy or because they are mostly concerned about whether or not their side “won” the election.  On this count, the Democratic Party is far more frustrating. With the rare exception of John McCain, Republicans typically don’t bother pretending that they believe restricting campaign money is important, necessary, or desirable. Democrats, on the other hand, pretend to care but mainly to have “reform” as an issue, not actually engage in reform.

1. The courts will inevitably undermine reform by equating money with political speech. Strategic political actors, candidates, political parties, and “fat cat” donors will “cheat” by pushing the legal limits until they are no longer recognizable. Enforcement will be minimal or nonexistent. And, the voters won’t do anything about it either because they are mired in apathy or because they are mostly concerned about whether or not their side “won” the election.  On this count, the Democratic Party is far more frustrating. With the rare exception of John McCain, Republicans typically don’t bother pretending that they believe restricting campaign money is important, necessary, or desirable. Democrats, on the other hand, pretend to care but mainly to have “reform” as an issue, not actually engage in reform.

2. Strategic political actors, candidates, political parties, and “fat cat” donors will “cheat” by pushing the legal limits until they are no longer recognizable. Enforcement will be minimal or nonexistent. And, the voters won’t do anything about it either because they are mired in apathy or because they are mostly concerned about whether or not their side “won” the election.  On this count, the Democratic Party is far more frustrating. With the rare exception of John McCain, Republicans typically don’t bother pretending that they believe restricting campaign money is important, necessary, or desirable. Democrats, on the other hand, pretend to care but mainly to have “reform” as an issue, not actually engage in reform.

3. Enforcement will be minimal or nonexistent. And, the voters won’t do anything about it either because they are mired in apathy or because they are mostly concerned about whether or not their side “won” the election.  On this count, the Democratic Party is far more frustrating. With the rare exception of John McCain, Republicans typically don’t bother pretending that they believe restricting campaign money is important, necessary, or desirable. Democrats, on the other hand, pretend to care but mainly to have “reform” as an issue, not actually engage in reform.

4. And, the voters won’t do anything about it either because while they claim to be concerned about money in politics, they aren’t willing to do anything about it.  The less active and engaged are mostly apathetic while more active partisans are mostly concerned about whether or not their side “won” the election.  On this count, the Democratic Party is far more frustrating. With the rare exception of John McCain, Republicans typically don’t bother pretending that they believe restricting campaign money is important, necessary, or desirable. Democrats, on the other hand, pretend to care but mainly to have “reform” as an issue, not actually engage in reform.

On this count, the Democratic Party is the far more frustrating. With the rare exception of politicians like John McCain, Republicans typically don’t bother pretending that they believe restricting campaign money is important, necessary, or desirable. Democrats, on the other hand, pretend to care but mainly to have “reform” as a campaign issue, not actually engage in reform.

So I have mostly given up, accepting that the best thing we can do is to try to direct the flow of money into the political system in ways most likely to clarify vote choice or to mobilize voters. This can be accomplished by allowing unlimited (but disclosed) contributions to candidates and political parties, removing the incentive for large donors to create or contribute to outside groups (i.e., SuperPacs). This hardly solves every problem. Candidates and parties will still obfuscate and misinform, but they are at least potentially held accountable at the ballot box. Contributors and active participants will continue to matter more than mere voters, but at least there is some incentive for candidates and parties to engage in mobilization efforts. Unfortunately, unless we want to think more deeply about the meaning of the First Amendment and the relationship between money and speech, it is the best we can do.

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