Monthly Archives: August 2009

More on campaign finance #

Nearly two months ago (has it really been that long?) Jeremy posed a thoughtful question following a post on campaign finance.

What do you make of arguments which state that disclosure is enough and that caps aren’t needed?

If voters know immediately where candidates are getting their funding they can usually pretty well decide whether or not the politician has the same policy preferences they support.

Comments to alt-tag.com, “Utah Campaign Finance”, 2009-06-29

We have disclosure, yet behavior that I find ethically questionable still exists. There are several possible reasons: voters aren’t aware of it (possible), the majority of voters don’t care (likely), or I’m up in the night (very likely). I noted previously that to my recollection, when these ethical questions are brought up on the campaign trail only intra-party challenges have succeeded. This leads to a fourth possibility: voters prefer ethically questionable members of their own party to unknown members of the “opposition.” (Better the devil you know that the devil you don’t.)

To answer Jeremy’s question a bit more directly, no, I’m not convinced disclosure is enough. Additional ethical standards and restrictions should be defined.

Even the question of whether campaign finance reform should be considered is being debated:

Is “campaign finance reform” about good government? We’ve long argued not—that reformers seem to care very little about governmental outputs, thinking it best to focus on an ideology of inputs. [T]he success of tax funding of campaigns is not measured by whether they lead to better government, but by the number of candidates who participate in the system.* If contributions can’t be shown to be a source of corruption, it is enough if they create “an appearance” of corruption. Make no mistake—this is an ideology, and a relatively blind one at that, for no study dissuades, no amount of experience shatters the belief that more reform is required. But historically, reformers have at least argued that they cared about good government.Brad Smith, “Is Campaign Finance Reform About Good Government?”, 2009-03-21, retrieved 2009-08-24

The argument is wrapped in a straw man (one can rightly care about both inputs and outputs), but does raise the question, “Why debate the issue?” At a high level, my response goes like this: good government is ethical; ethical government is more likely when its members are ethical; ethical behavior is more likely when clear standards are in place and ethics are openly discussed.

If standards should be put in place, how then should it be done? Jeremy continues:

Unlimited contributions allow for well financed new-comers who can pose a viable challenge to incumbents. Contribution limits end up benefiting those politicians already in power because they require that opponents have a much larger contributor base than is often possible.Comments to alt-tag.com, “Utah Campaign Finance”, 2009-06-29

I agree. After brainstorming, here are a few thoughts I’d love to see argued. (If you do post a response on your own blog, please add a link to the comments here—I’m not checking the bloghive as often as I’d like.)

Prohibit corporate donations
Corporations exist for a different purpose than citizens do. The difference in comparative wealth of corporations versus citizens should be enough to sustain this argument, but it’s not the only reason. The primary purpose of corporations is profit; it follows that the corporation’s primary purpose in financing/lobbying government is also profit. This is, I think, not generally in the best interests of citizens. For the same reasons, corporate contributions to political parties, PACs, and other political special interest groups should be restricted. (For example, corporate interference on health care issues.) There are significant restrictions on corporations at the federal level, but there is a fairly important case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court that could drastically alter the landscape. (Also here, here.)
Prohibit campaign contributions from other candidates’ funds
Nothing, I think, makes the U.S. Senate look like an old boys club than the massive campaign support members provide each other. Once one is “in” the club, it would certainly be difficult to turn aside such displays of friendship. Still, I’m not convinced that such behavior serves the public interest.
Require tracking of all contributions
In the age of credit cards and anonymous pre-paid debit cards, it is important, if one values disclosure, to closely track contribution from these sources. The Obama campaign was criticized for accepting contributions from anonymous sources (although nothing was ever done, largely, I suspect because there wasn’t enough information to prove anything), and it was speculated they also accepted multiple contributions below current disclosure levels that in aggregate would have exceeded legal limits. (See e.g., Washington Post, New York Times, and here. See also criticism of McCain’s funding.) This is not the first campaign to face this criticism, and won’t be the last until finance law catches up with the Internet. (See also here.)
Restrict campaign funds to a single election cycle
The uphill financing battle faced by newcomers is significant. A more equitable approach would be to restrict campaign accounts to have a fixed duration (say, three years before the election). The surplus would be required to be donated to charity (or some such). This would require donations to be tagged at donation time for a specific election year as a preventative action against an account-shuffling shell game, but this wouldn’t be a bad thing.
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