Somewhere, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the most committed warrior on the right in battling against campaign finance reform (on First Amendment grounds), is smiling his Cheshire Cat grin. The Republican National Committee’s report today takes a chain saw to campaign finance reform, and for some very good reasons.
The report states:
McCain-Feingold now makes it impossible for the national parties to use funds raised under a state’s own laws to support state and local candidates and parties in that state, and it forces them to use federal money for what are truly state and local activities. Even state parties are prohibited from spending money that is legal under state law on important grassroots activities to help state and local candidates. Although the Supreme Court thankfully has restored the First Amendment rights of many organizations, the free speech rights of political parties and federal candidates remain smothered by McCain-Feingold. Even though national and state parties are the most transparent, accountable and grassroots-oriented groups in our political system, they are the most heavily restricted by federal campaign finance law. However, outside groups — such as SuperPACs, 501(c)(4)s and 527s — use unlimited, and often unreported, amounts of the same money federal candidates and national parties are now prohibited from spending or raising.
The result is an illogical system where candidates and their parties no longer have the loudest voices in campaigns or even the ability to determine the issues debated in campaigns. Outside groups now play an expanded role affecting federal races and, in some ways, overshadow state parties in primary and general elections. As a result, this environment has caused a splintered Congress with little party cohesion so that gridlock and polarization grow as the political parties lose their ability to rally their elected officeholders around a set of coherent governing policies.
This is exactly right. McCain-Feingold didn’t end money in politics, it chased it into entities that push for extreme positions, empowering candidates like Rick Santorum to stay well beyond their shelf life. The fear of big corporations or big money men is legitimate — and the problem is the independent entities that have sprung up because the political parties have been squeezed and circumscribed.
There is also an anomaly between state-based groups and national parties. So the RNC suggests: “Allow the national political parties to again raise and spend money that is legal under state law for use in those states. It makes no sense that in many states the national parties are more restricted in how they can fund state and local political efforts than corporations, labor unions and other nonpolitical organizations.” More boldly, the RNC recommends:
In the age of SuperPACs and other such organizations, the contribution limits to federal candidates must be increased so candidates have more control of the message and voters have a better understanding of the viewpoints of candidates rather than of third-party groups. . . .
Convince Congress to remove the biennial aggregate contribution limits. . . .
Abolish the entire presidential public financing system, including the matching funds program for the primaries and the public grant for the general election. . . .
Replace the system of taxpayer funding of national conventions with a system that allows additional contributions to the national party committees for convention activities. . .
Legislative and regulatory reform should focus on making political speech more robust at the state and local level. In many states, political speech is suppressed to an even greater extent than under federal law.
The campaign finance proponents will decry that this lets big money donors dominate politics. But in fact, that is the system we have now.
In calling to lift restrictions on state and local parties the RNC is smartly seeking to reinvigorate those entities. Once they become more vibrant, the ability to attune candidates and positions to local and state preferences increases. Maryland Republicans need not be Georgia Republicans and as a result might get elected.
The impact on the substance of policy is a smart observation. (“This environment has caused a splintered Congress with little party cohesion so that gridlock and polarization grow as the political parties lose their ability to rally their elected officeholders around a set of coherent governing policies”). If candidates aren’t dependent on fringe groups and the party re-assumes its primary role, the extreme candidates and the wacky positions will be bled of a good deal of money. These groups can still raise money and do whatever they please, but their utility will be subsumed by the parties who can once again be the main clearing house for recruitment, training, fundraising, etc.
If you want less polarization and more transparency in politics, the recommendations make a lot of sense. In short, aside from the First Amendment argument, McConnell’s vision not Sen. John McCain’s is the one that will improve our political climate.