Liberals and good-government types are predictably up in arms about campaign finance loopholes that allow enormous sums of undisclosed money into the system — Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS alone has apparently raised around $75 million from undisclosed donors for this cycle.
I support meaningful disclosure laws. So I’m think this is overall a bad idea. But really . . . I find it hard to get overly upset about this one. I mean: What exactly is the harm that reformers are fighting against here? Certainly, many reformers want less money in politics overall, which I disagree with, but that’s not what this is about.
Disclosure is a good thing for two reasons, I would think. It prevents corruption or the appearance of corruption; there’s a general sense that politicians might be willing to enter into a quid pro quo arrangement with secret donors, while they would shy away from doing any favors for disclosed donors that might open them to charges of corruption. And there’s also a representation issue: voters, one might argue, are entitled to know about donations because they can be good clues to how politicians will act in office.
So, are secret donors to Crossroads GPS corrupting for Mitt Romney and the Republicans? The appearance of corruption is in the eye of the beholder, so I can’t speak to that (and I don’t believe it should be a factor in campaign finance laws). As far as actual corruption, if we define it as quid pro quo, I doubt it. What, you expect Romney would have been for raising taxes on rich people if it wasn’t for all those secret donations?
For the most part, and certainly for most high-profile issues, Romney’s positions are determined by actors within the Republican Party, who demand loyalty from him if he wants their nomination. It’s true that there may be below-the-radar issues where Romney is relatively free to act and it’s possible that donations might influence him, but that’s fairly tenuous. Especially, for whatever it’s worth, when the secret donations are being made to an outside group. (Will Romney actually know who contributed? Smart interest groups might consider a strategy of holding on to their money and then claiming to the Romney White House that they were responsible for all that secret fundraising.)
What about the representation side of things? On that, I strongly support disclosure. I’m all for giving voters meaningful cues about what politicians will do in office, and certainly large donations from one side of a controversy should be a good clue. Note that it doesn’t have to be corrupting at all; interest groups may support only politicians who already agree with them for other reasons, but voters might still be interested in knowing, for example, whether a politician will likely be on the side of the oil companies or the environmentalists.
The only problem is that I doubt that this works very well in practice. How many voters will actually find out which campaign took money from the doctors or the trial lawyers, for example? Especially in the general election, when most voters — and even more attentive voters — are partisans, how many will actually switch their vote based on the information available from donations? It has to be a vanishingly small group.
So, yes, I do wish that we had effective, meaningful, comprehensive disclosure, but I’m finding it hard to get worked up about this one.