After spasms of hysteria regarding the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down aggregate limits on campaign donations to parties and individual candidates, saner voices have surfaced.
As we did, they argue that the ruling is a net positive for the political system. David Brooks writes, “It has been greeted with cries of horror because it may increase the amount of money in politics. But this is the wrong metric. There will always be money in politics; it’s a pipe dream to think otherwise. The crucial question is where is the money flowing.” He argues: “The McCutcheon decision is a rare win for the parties. It enables party establishments to claw back some of the power that has flowed to donors and ‘super PACs.’ It effectively raises the limits on what party establishments can solicit. It gives party leaders the chance to form joint fund-raising committees they can use to marshal large pools of cash and influence. McCutcheon is a small step back toward a party-centric system.”
It is only a small step, however, since third-party cash will continue to prevail, as Amy Walter of Cook Political Report [subscription required] has figured out. Whatever money flows to parties and candidates beyond the old aggregate caps “will not compare to the torrent of cash getting pumped into the system by outside groups.” It is easy to see why: “First, there is a relatively small universe of people who hit the limit on campaign contributions. According to the Open Secrets blog, just 646 donors maxed out to both the party and candidates ($123,200) in 2012. One campaign finance expert I spoke with yesterday told me that he expects that outside non-party spending (i.e., the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity and Democratic-affiliated Senate Majority PAC) will continue to exceed party spending in this election year.” Most important, she points out, is that “super wealthy donors who want to 1.) remain anonymous and/or 2.) have more say over how their money is spent, will continue to put their cash into outside groups. Why give your money to a campaign committee like the RNC or DNC that will spend it on the races and issues they see as important, when you can give your money to a group that will only spend it on candidates and issues you value? Of the $1B in outside spending in 2012, about a third ($311M) was spent by groups that didn’t identify their donors.”
Giving to parties has two benefits over third-party money from the perspective of the candidate and the public. First, unlike third-party money, it can be coordinated and used for nuts-and-bolts items like turn-out-the-vote efforts. A candidate need not worry that some third-party group will air an “off-message” or controversial ad that will embarrass him. And from the public’s perspective, routing money back into parties provides disclosure and accountability. You know who is giving and you know the candidate “approves this message.”
It is hard to understand the hysteria about the Supreme Court’s ruling unless you consider that the Democratic campaign for 2014 has become an assault on the Koch brothers. (Ironically, this ruling has nothing to do with them because they generally give to third-party groups.) There is not an event (e.g. the House budget, the Supreme Court decision) that occurs that is not instantly transformed into a fear-mongering exercise about the Koch’s political influence. And too often the mainstream media play along. Excuse us then if we don’t take the hub-bub seriously — it’s not only misleading; it’s not very sincere.