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My AEI colleague Peter Wallison has cowritten one of those rare books that makes the lightbulb over one’s head go “ping!”
Wallison and co-author Joel Gora have taken on the vexed subject of campaign finance–a topic where every past reform has made things worse. A generation of attempts to limit contributions and control speech has ended by entrenching incumbents and empowering the super-rich. Candidates spend up to half their time raising money, and typically from the very interest groups that most seek to influence them. As Wallison and Gora wryly comment, if the purpose of the system is to combat the appearance of corruption, it is singularly poorly designed.
How’d we end up here?
Like so many disasters, the American campaign finance mess began with a single poorly considered step. Back in 1940, Congress imposed a limit on the amount of money a political party could give its own candidates in congressional and senatorial campaigns.
These limits seemed ample at the time, but they have not kept pace with inflation. Unable to rely on money from national parties, candidates had to raise funds for themselves: first just a little extra to top up the money they got from their party, then more and more and more as the cost of television advertising pushed up the expense of campaigning and inflation ate away the value of the party money. By the late 1960s, candidates were raising almost all of their campaign funds themselves.
This shift from party-centered financing to candidate-centered financing has had dramatic effects on American politics and American government.
In other countries, the central party organizations raise money, conduct polls, state a platform, hire experts, and present advertising. In the United States, every candidate must do these functions for himself or herself. That may sound admirably independent. But in liberating candidates from dependence on party, we have left them beholden to donors–unless of course they can afford to pay the costs of their campaigns themselves, as happens more and more often.
Acting as independent entrepreneurs, candidates refuse to be bound by party programs. This makes governance more difficult for the majority party while making it more difficult for the minority people to articulate a national message. In Britain, Canada, Australia or Germany, the opposition party offers alternative policies: in the United States, the party that loses the presidency can find itself–as Republicans now find ourselves–without any agreed message at all.
More ominously, while parties want to want lots of seats, individual candidates care intensely only about winning their own. So a vicious cycle has been unleashed: as the parties weaken, politicians look out for themselves. Self-seeking office-holders strike deals with officeholders of the other party to protect all incumbents against all challengers–which is what almost every so-called reform since 1974 has tended to do.
Since the 1970s, liberals and conservatives have battled over a stale and familiar menu of reforms: liberals want government financing; conservatives want higher donor limits and more transparency. Wallison and Gora convincingly argue that these reforms either miss the point or will make matters worse.
Challengers need to spend more money than incumbents to have any hope of overcome the advantages of incumbency. Government funding, by preventing this, would favor incumbents even more grossly than they are favored today, while simultaneously restricting rights of free speech and democratic participation.
Yet the conservative pet reforms also have flaws. Donor transparency makes it easier for incumbents to retaliate against interests that dare to fund challengers.
Wallison and Gora urge that we strike at the root of the system by restoring the role of the parties: let parties give unlimited amounts to their candidates (and then put reasonable limits on the ability of individuals to give to parties). The parties will then do the job that consultants do now. Candidates can focus on campaigning, not fund-raising, and office-holders will have more time to do the work of legislating.
Elections will become more competitive as the parties put money where it will have the greatest impact. Voter choice will become more meaningful, as the parties develop clearer policy platforms in order to attract national support.
Wallison is a Republican and Gora–a former counsel to the ACLU–is presumably a Democrat. They present their case in nonpartisan terms. Yet their idea should have special appeal to Republicans concerned with party modernization.
Under the present system, the “out” party tends to veer to policy and rhetorical extremes. Members from swing districts lose their seats. As the party shrinks, its message becomes more extreme–and no countervailing force exists to push it back to the center. But a central party organization wants to win elections. It can be that countervailing force. Both parties would benefit from a tilt in the incentives toward more pragmatic politics, but the Republicans would today benefit most.
Better Parties, Better Government is a careful legal study, written in a cool and precise style. But there is nothing more exciting than a good idea, and the urgency and power of the idea argued here makes this specialized monograph one of the most thrilling books I’ve read all year.
David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.
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