Campaign finance reform is far from a political panacea

Does money have too much influence in American politics?  Yep.  (Though one look no further than Jeb’s campaign to see the obvious limits).  Do we really need some meaningful campaign finance reform?  Absolutely.  Would even the very best possible reform solve what ails or political system?  No way.  Seth Masket is on the task in his latest Pacific Standard column:

The real nugget of Sanders’ reforms is the Fair Elections Now Act, and it’s not a bad proposal. It’s certainly more thoughtful than previous campaign finance efforts that simply sought to put caps on how much people could donate to candidates or parties. What FENA does is set a modest threshold for candidate fundraising to demonstrate their viability. For example, candidates for the House of Representatives would need to raise $50,000 across at least 1,500 donors.

If they meet this threshold, public financing would kick in. The government would provide the candidate with enough funding to run competitive primary and general election campaigns. If they wished to raise more money, they could do so in a way that magnifies the contributions of smaller donors. The government would give the candidate five times each private donation they’d received of $100 or less.

This is actually not a very radical proposal. Several states (Arizona, Connecticut, and Maine) have recently been using public financing in state legislative races…

It’s also worth noting that small donors—the sorts of donors valorized by such reforms and generally believed to have purer souls than those who donate thousands at a single time—have their own agendas. Those who contribute small amounts tend to be more ideologically extreme than other donors. To the extent politicians would be more dependent upon them for election and re-election, such a reform could end up making government actually more dysfunctional.

Good points, but this paragraph is Masket’s brilliant key nugget:

For another, it’s still just really hard to find direct evidence that donations, even a lot of them, change the votes of politicians. To hear Sanders’ supporters describe it, his money is pure and comes from his hundreds of thousands of supporters who want nothing more than a better future for the country, while Hillary Clinton is a shill for corporations and the military industrial complex, and her affiliated super PACs have corrupted her outlook. Isn’t it interesting, then, thatthey voted identically 93 percent of the time they served in the Senate together? Is the hope that a complete re-structuring of the campaign finance system will make politicians seven percent less attuned to wealthy corporate interests? [emphasis mine]

And, of course, a smart and sober conclusion:

The reform proposal at the core of Sanders’ revolution is actually not that revolutionary, and it could actually do some good. But it’s hard to see it dramatically re-structuring our electoral system, no less inducing other societal shifts. And it actually has some costs built into it, such as a potential increase in polarization. So certainly peruse and consider it, but don’t expect it to bring about the revolution.

Yeah, that.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

5 Responses to Campaign finance reform is far from a political panacea

  1. itchy says:

    “For another, it’s still just really hard to find direct evidence that donations, even a lot of them, change the votes of politicians.”

    Lack of evidence that this happens is not evidence that it does not. It could be that it’s a real effect that is just very difficult to prove directly.

    • Steve Greene says:

      That’s quite true. Though, there’s been no shortage of hard looking on the part of smart political scientists. I would say that most would agree there is an actual, modest, effect, but way less than most people think.

      • itchy says:

        That would be my hunch as well. Pesca talked about this last week. It’s so difficult to compare to the counterfactual: How would the politician have voted if not for the money?

  2. R. Jenrette says:

    The important thing is that big money buys big access. Lobbying works and big money buys skilled lobbyists.

    • Alex says:

      Yes, this. Money in politics isn’t necessarily about voting trends. Instead, money affects what even gets put up for a vote in the first place, and who gets to steer the conversation.

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