Why striking down campaign contribution limits might make politics better

October 16, 2013

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This is a guest post by University of Massachusetts political scientists Ray La Raja.  His first post on the McCutcheon case is here.

Thanks to Bob Biersack for his thoughtful reply to my post about McCutcheon.  However, I do not think he addressed the core points in my previous post, which are:

  1. The current system already favors big donors without any of the complicated schemes described by Bob or the amici briefs against McCutcheon.  In fact, options similar to those schemes are already available, and nobody uses them.
  2. If big donors are going to be a part of the system, it would better to steer them through candidate and party committees than through unaccountable Super PACs or other non-transparent groups.

The oral arguments in McCutcheon — and much of Bob’s concerns — focus on circumvention of contribution limits through multiple PACs and joint fundraising committees.  Bob poses the same hypothetical that was discussed in oral arguments about a single donor skirting the system with thousands of separate and limited contributions adding up to $3.5 million. While the administrative and legal headaches to pulling this off seem daunting, let us assume it is doable with all the smart lawyers in Washington.

But if we also assume that donors seek a “corrupting influence” (his term) then the “skirting strategy” becomes less plausible.  Donors will find it difficult to prevent many of the recipients from shirking on the corrupt bargain.  This is the familiar principal-agent problem.  Even if the complex transaction is coordinated through congressional party leadership, the individual donor loses control over how the money is spent and for whom.   Rather than pour millions into a thousand rivulets, it is better for, say, the Koch brothers to finance a super-PAC that advertises issues they care about or donate lavishly to interest groups they control than attempt to elect candidates who are fully committed to their position.

For similar reasons, I also question Bob’s assertion that a joint fundraising committee would be an effective vehicle for such donors.  But if that is a fear, then one potential remedy is to lobby the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to write rules that constrain the number of candidates or PACs that can benefit from a joint committee.  At first blush, I see no strong First Amendment arguments against such constraints, although I acknowledge that rule-making has not been an easy task for the FEC in recent years.

Finally, I want to say more about why striking down aggregate contribution limits might actually attenuate ideological extremism (assuming I’m mostly wrong on my first point that people will not try to circumvent contribution limits!). The current campaign finance system – with its emphasis on interest group spending — favors highly ideological factions that have the means and motive to run independent campaigns.  Rules that channel more money through party organizations and candidates might dampen the power of groups like the Tea Party.  Against this claim, Bob suggests that political parties ran ads in 2012 that were just as “aggressive” and negative as interest groups.  Research by the Wesleyan Media Project indicates that this is not true.   But this finding is not relevant to my argument.

My point about moderation is not about the tone or content of political ads, but is tied to the nomination process where party factions fight their ideological battles.   A generation ago, such battles were waged internally in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms.   Today they might be hashed out in the open through primary elections.   The advantage goes to the interest group that can raise a lot of money and mobilize its partisan faction of voters.    Ideological moderation seems more plausible when political resources are controlled primarily by party leaders whose chief incentive is to win elections rather than take positions.

Like Bob, I support reasonable contribution limits, but I do not think the retention of aggregate limits on party committees and candidates improves the current campaign finance system.  I certainly do not think, as Bob suggests, that a favorable ruling for McCutcheon will encourage “more money from fewer sources to flow more freely.”   That dynamic was partially spurred by Citizens United.   If anything removing the aggregate limits could make the system more accountable by channeling funds to political committees that are transparent, particularly party and candidate committees, which must face the voters at the ballot box.

John Sides is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. He specializes in public opinion, voting, and American elections.
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