No on Campaign Finance Amendment

No on Campaign Finance Amendment

If I voted my conscience on the campaign finance amendment – not always the best option for a U.S. Senator – I would have joined the Republicans in voting no. Here’s why:

My position on campaign finance regulation has shifted significantly over the last few years. I used to be a classic supporter of contribution limits, strict laws on coordination, and public financing. My concern is class-based: I understand the problem as a matter of the wealthy gaining an unfair advantage over the less-wealthy. But a few things change my mind about the solution.

First, Jonathan Bernstein’s arguments about the impracticality of campaign finance laws caught my attention (see this recent example). Second, I have been put off by the straw man arguments around the Citizens United case – evidence suggests the decision made a negligible difference in overall campaign spending. Finally, I have become increasingly frustrated by one outcome of campaign finance laws: the shift of money from the formal party organizations to independent groups.

Since I believe donors will always find a path for their money, I prefer a path in which the money passes through the control of those with a professional interest in the party brand (e.g., Republican fundraising gurus, Democratic political consultants). Overall, I believe this would add an incentive in favor of moderation and compromise and/or the creation of more robust third parties. Unfortunately, our current campaign finance regime shifts money away from formal party organizations to party-aligned groups with their own priorities.

In this particular amendment, three specific phrases cause me concern:

  1. “Democratic self-government” – There’s an edge here of a paternalistic class argument, that campaign finance is necessary to protect the masses from the messages of the wealthy. At a time when the poor are being disenfranchised in more directs ways, this amendment is at least a step removed from the real dangers to “democratic self-government.”
  2. “To influence elections” – This phrase is repeated twice in the amendment as a qualifier to the powers it would grant. But money spent “to influence elections” is inseparable from money spent to influence policy, public opinion, or even basic marketing. For example, BP might want to run TV ads promoting its environmental work and the positive impact of cheap fossil fuels on the U.S. economy. It might run them primarily in Gulf States during 2014. How would we know whether BP was primarily trying to repair its tattered brand image or if it was “spending money to influence elections” like the Florida gubernatorial race?
  3. “Freedom of the press” – The amendment itself identifies a new path for the restricted money: the press protection afforded by the 1st Amendment. As newspapers become less relevant and people look increasingly to the internet for their news, “press” becomes an increasingly unclear category. We already have plenty of partisan press. Do we really want a new wave of paid advocacy masquerading as “press” in order to sidestep campaign finance laws?

What steps would I support? Just little things, really. First, I think it would be entirely reasonable for states to regulate the timing and location of campaign contributions. State legislators could be banned not only from accepting financing on state property but also when the legislature is in session. This would help diminish the easy of quid pro quo deals.

Second, transparency. The technology exists for speedy reporting and tracking of campaign contributions online. We should require it of all campaigns, even if that means supplying some technical support to down-ballot campaigns. Basically, anyone who wants to collect money for campaigns (including tax-exempt organizations with a campaign wing) should have to disclose such donations and their donors quickly and openly.

I’m on the fence about public financing (basic financing allowing candidates to compete, not matching funds) and individual contribution limits. And on the real issue of Citizens United: Congress needs to take a more active legislative role in defining the nature of corporations – a task they have largely left up to the courts for more than a century – instead of trying to grant themselves sweeping new Constitutional powers over the mechanism by which they gain their own positions.

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a reform-minded historian, center-left Democrat, and religious believer.

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3 Responses to No on Campaign Finance Amendment

  1. Jason,

    I’d love to know what you think about Lawrence Lessig’s ideas on campaign finance reform. His book /Republic, Lost/ is really worthwhile, but so is the wikipedia page about the book:,_Lost

    And his TED talk is pretty stellar:

    Basically I think you and he agree that the current campaign finance system needs to change. His big issue is that “we the people” are no longer the primary drivers of our government, but rather that “they the funders” are. He doesn’t believe that strict campaign finance limitations will ever work (particularly with this Supreme Court), but that a smart public financing system based on “vouchers” might actually be able to change the coagulation of political influence at the top (speaking of which, this political science professor summarizes a terrifying study about said coagulation:

  2. Jason, I must take issue with your assertion that there evidence shows there is negligible spending on campaigns after the Citizens United case. According to, ” During the 2012 cycle, in which non-party outside spending tripled 2008′s total and topped $1 billion for the first time, super PACs accounted for more than $600 million of that spending.” It seems pretty obvious how Citizens United affected the political landscape financially. I would be curious as to what evidence you have found to show that to be untrue.

    I do like your idea that Congress needs to take control, via legislation, and define the nature of corporations instead of leaving it up to the courts. However, given the unbelievable influence corporations currently have with congress, I don’t see this ever happening.

    • Clinton – I stand by my assertion that the decision made a negligible difference in OVERALL campaign spending. Certainly, as the piece you point to makes clear, spending by outside groups increased. But that’s been the case for quite some time (and apparently on an exponential trajectory, in which tripling from the last cycle wouldn’t be unusual). The overall cost of campaigning has likewise continued to rise, though on an arithmatic scale (see here for instance: The Citizens United decision MAY have encouraged more funds to be shifted from direct contributions to ‘outside’ groups, though even there it isn’t clear how much the decision shifted the pattern in place.

      It would be nice if things like the health care law and fight over contraceptive coverage would have spurred congressional action, but right now it’s just the executive and courts fighting over such things. Sad.

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