Did I get the money-and-politics debate all wrong?

A few weeks back I published two pieces that riled up the campaign-finance community.

One argued that we got too excited over money in the 2012 election. For all the talk that GOP superPACs would waltz in, purchase the race and have enough money left over to take the American people out for a soda, in the end, the parties were closely matched and there's no evidence that money was a decisive factor. The other argued that small donors tend to be ideological donors, and so far from curing American politics of its ills, a heavier reliance on small donors could worsen Washington's problems with polarization.

All of the dollars. (bigstockphoto)

All of the dollars. (bigstockphoto)

The pieces engendered some smart pushback from folks in the campaign-finance community. I recommend clicking through the links and reading the full pieces, but I'll respond to some of the arguments here. Over at the Sunlight Foundation, Lee Drutman wrote:

If big corporate money is to be held up as centralizing force in American politics (Klein’s implicit argument), it has done a terrible job of it. In the last election, 32 super PAC donors gave a combined $313 million to the presidential campaigns, the equivalent of 3.7 million small donors. In 2010, one percent of one percent of Americans accounted for about a quarter of all individual donations. Yet American politics is at record levels of partisanship.

In fact, two of the most pronounced trends in American politics in the last two decades have been increasing polarization and increasing role of big money in elections. If big money does in fact play a tempering role on partisan extremism, you would not expect the historically high levels of partisanship we observe.

There are two things going on here. One is that, as Drutman points out, I did a poor job explaining that big money can be ideological money, too. It isn't always. But the superPACs were certainly highly ideological. Both big money and small money can polarize.

But Drutman goes too far when he writes that "polarization is actually a consequence of big money elections." This is, I think, my primary beef with the money-in-politics community: It can often make it seem as if money is the only problem in politics, and all other problems are simply its poisoned fruit. I think the evidence that polarization is the consequence of the realignment of conservative southern Democrats into the Republican Party and liberal northern Republicans into the Democratic Party is a whole lot stronger than the evidence that money drove the changes.

That said, Drutman does have an interesting suggestion for a small-donor matching system that could potentially reduce polarization. He observes that most of the highly ideological money tends to come from outside a candidate's district, and even outside his or her state. So you could imagine a system that match small-donor donations but restricted the match to donations from inside the district or state. It's an interesting idea, though you'd need a pretty significant match to ensure that politicians who used the system actually had enough money to run a serious race. In the end, I'm not sure it quite answers the problem posed by my piece: If big money corrupts and polarizes, and small money polarizes, then aside from serious public financing, all the major reform ideas on the table come with big problems.

Over at the Roosevelt Institute, Mark Schmitt argues that savvy campaign-finance reformers have long known that the problem isn't the money candidates raise after they enter the election, but the money they know they need to raise just to get into the election.

Most often the reason that we don’t see the impact of money so directly in the endgame of presidential and Senate elections is that the candidates have already done whatever they need to do to reach the threshold of competitiveness. They’ve done the three fundraisers a week, the hundred phone calls a day; they’ve avoided the tough votes that would alienate supporters. If they hadn’t done those things, they wouldn’t be there, in what are, in effect, the finals.

That’s why the key principle of reform is not to limit spending in the endgame, but to make it easier for candidates of all kinds to reach the threshold where they can compete, without spending all their time with major donors and without all the compromises that necessarily ensue.

I agree with that, and would go a bit further: Money matters enormously as a time-suck. It's clear that members of Congress spend an enormous amount of time raising money. That's time they're not spending learning about policy issues or forging relationships with other legislators or talking to their constituents. Moreover, it's time they spend, as Mark points out, in the company of the donor class and that inevitably affects their views, too. To put it differently, money doesn't just makes our representatives more corrupt. It makes them less competent.

But one quibble with Mark's post: He wonders whether, since I think money is overrated in American politics, I think members of Congress are somehow wrong or misguided to spend so much time raising money. Absolutely.

Members of Congress are obsessed with remaining members of Congress but in the year-and-a-half in which they're not running for Congress, there's not all that much they can do to calm their nerves about the next election. Raising money, however, is something they can do in off-years, it's something everyone tells them will help win their next election, and so it takes on an outsized importance in their schedules. They also, in my view, spend too much time writing up press releases and working with staffers on "message." A lot of what happens in Washington is people keeping busy and trying to give themselves the illusion of control over the next election. That's not to say they're entirely misguided when they're out raising money, but it is to say that all the incentives are aligned for them to spend more time raising money than is strictly necessary.

Over at the Huffington Post, Jonathan Backer, a research associate at the Brennan Center for Justice, argues that "the more troubling role of money in politics is its potential to shape lawmakers’ decisions after they are elected." I think that's right, but Backer's example is ill-chosen:

While the threat of a double-dip recession couldn’t persuade Congress to avert the self-imposed sequester, the typically languid House and Senate did manage in a mere six days to grant the Federal Aviation Administration more flexibility in managing the cuts — the only exception of its kind. While 800,000 workers experience cuts to unemployment benefits and 140,000 fewer families receive low-income housing vouchers, those people don’t exert enough power and influence to extract concessions from Congress. Would these people have more clout if they had the means to make large campaign contributions?

I think sequestration is outrageous and the reversal of the FAA cuts is obscene. But connecting it to money in politics doesn't make much sense. The defense cuts are vastly larger and affect contractors with far more sophisticated and overwhelming lobbying operations than anything mustered by the nation's airports. Yet the defense contractors haven't gotten their cuts reversed. Nor have the nation's universities, or the energy companies relying on federal grants, or the unions that represent state and local workers. It's very hard to come up with a theory of money in politics that overturns the FAA cuts but leaves the cuts to these other constituencies.

Ultimately, my critics and I probably agree on the various reform proposals on the table. I'd take anything from the mild disclosure laws that Republicans filibustered in 2012 to much more aggressive public financing bills, or small-donor matching bills. But I think we need to be realistic about which problems money causes, which it doesn't, and which might be worsened as a byproduct of our solutions. Too often, money is set up as the central villain in American politics, and policies to mitigate its role are presented as cure-alls. That thinking is dangerous, not least because it distracts us from key problems, like polarization, that require very different cures.

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