Wednesday, November 30, 2005I am all for reducing the influence on politics, but the problems that are created by campaign finance reform are daunting. Policies being enacted at the state level seem to be pushing for a system of public financing, with lots of small contributions triggering public support. There is a similar system at work in New York City elections, where contributions of $200 earn a 4-1 match up to a limit of around $150,000. The difficulty is that candidates capable of raising far larger sums can always exit the system. The recent state legislation attempts to address this issue by giving extra grants to candidates who face such opponents. Of course this could lead to some very large public outlays which might undermine the system.
There are a lot of other interesting ideas floating around out there: vouchers for free media time, since 90% of the funds for congressional races go to television; reducing the incentive for contributing by mandating anonymous contributions; creating vouchers so that everyone can contribute; and even hoping that the courts will overturn Buckley so that we can simply limit the amount that will be spent.
All of these approaches have their strengths, but I still think there some elements of campaign finance reform that have yet to be grappled with. First of all, what is the purpose behind such reforms? Is it to reduce the possibility or appearance of corruption? To make for more competitive elections? Or to make it possible for those without means to run for office? Each purpose brings with it a different sense of what reform requires.
I would put forth the radical position that the real aim of campaign finance reform should be to eliminate the role of money in politics entirely. Unfortunately this link has been constitutionalized by Buckley. In addition, this desire is complicated by the failure to distinguish between candidates and organizations. We now have such a candidate-centered political system that our notion of reform is exclusively concerned with donations to candidates. This neglect led to the "soft money" problem of unlimited contributions to party organizations. The unintended consequence of these reforms was to further emphasize the importance of candidates rather than organizations by restricting the ability of parties to raise money.
Our aim should not be just to tightly regulate money but to reduce its relevance in the political process. This means that we must work to strengthen participative institutions which by their very nature diminish the importance of money. In doing so we must provide safeguards against corruption and machine politics, which organizations are notoriously vulnerable to.
In short, we need not more autonomous candidates - the effect of the proposed reforms - but candidates who are more dependent on people who are willing to do more than just write a check. Only then will we have a democracy worthy of the name.