A Campaign Finance Reform That Actually Reforms
How to Help Challengers Compete by Leveling the Political Playing Field

Better Parties, Better Government: A Realistic Program for Campaign Finance Reform
By Peter J. Wallison and Joel M. Gora
AEI Press, April 2009

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All federal campaign finance reform legislation enacted since 1971--ostensibly intended to keep politicians honest and limit the influence of contributors--has in reality protected incumbents by limiting the funds available to challengers. Although the courts have struck down many of these incumbent-protection measures, important ones still remain, particularly restrictions on spending by political parties. The result has been sky-high reelection rates for incumbents--up to 98 percent in recent years--despite record-low public approval ratings for elected officials. What could be done to reverse this trend? Lift the restrictions on campaign spending by political parties. This would strengthen the parties, improve the ability of candidates to challenge incumbents, and, ultimately, strengthen American democracy.

In Better Parties, Better Government: A Realistic Program for Campaign Finance Reform (AEI Press, 2009), Peter J. Wallison and Joel M. Gora guide readers through the complex tangle of laws, rules, regulations, exceptions, exemptions, and safe harbors that constitute our current campaign finance regime, and explain how to reform the system with a single change: ending the restrictions on spending by political parties. This single modification, they argue, will transform elections, our politics, and indeed our government by allowing challengers to compete more effectively with incumbents and by improving the choices available to voters.

The current campaign finance system, which requires candidates to raise their own funds, has a range of adverse effects:

  • It invites the appearance of corruption by requiring candidates to go hat-in-hand to special interests, which in turn become more powerful
  • It favors candidates wealthy enough to finance their own campaigns and discourages less wealthy, but no less qualified, candidates
  • It encourages elected officials to spend more time fundraising than governing
  • It empowers consultants, thus raising campaign costs

Past attempts to reform the campaign finance system have proved ineffective. Wallison and Gora review four decades of campaign finance legislation and make the following observations:

  • Genuinely competitive elections will never be achieved by passing ever-greater restrictions on spending. New restrictions simply give rise to new loopholes, which in turn give rise to calls for further legislation or regulation.
  • Government financing of candidates, which is often proposed as a way to make elections fairer and give challengers a chance, tends to come with strings attached. In order to receive public funds, candidates must agree to limit the amount they will spend on their campaigns. Wallison and Gora contend that such "spending limits--whether imposed by law or 'voluntarily' agreed to as a condition of receiving the government financing--are inevitably and invariably protective of incumbents."
  • The fear that private contributions will corrupt elected officials is overblown. "Years of scholarly inquiry into the relationship between campaign contributions and voting have not been able to show that lawmakers are being corrupted or subjected to undue influence. Despite the media's insistence that elected officials favor the interests of their contributors, academic studies have repeatedly shown that money follows policy and not the other way around," Wallison and Gora argue.

These misconceptions and ill-advised attempts at campaign finance reform have resulted in laws that are convoluted, ineffective, and unconstitutional. The easiest and most valuable reform would be to simply lift restrictions on campaign spending by parties. A party-centered campaign finance system would not only ameliorate the ills of the current system; it would allow parties to exert more control over candidates and their platforms, resulting in elections with more substantive programmatic content and congressional majorities with more specific mandates. Stronger parties will lead to better candidates, and better candidates will improve government and reinvigorate American democracy.

Peter J. Wallison, a former White House counsel, is the Arthur F. Burns Fellow in Financial Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC.

Joel M. Gora is a professor at Brooklyn Law School and former legal counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union. As an ACLU lawyer, he was one of the attorneys who represented the plaintiffs in Buckley v. Valeo, arguing that the requirements of the Federal Election Campaign Act violated the rights protected by the First Amendment and heavily favored incumbents.


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