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:
- “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.”
- “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?
- “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.