Last week Ian Vandewalker and Daniel Weiner of the Brennan Center for Justice published a paper “Stronger Parties, Stronger Democracy: Rethinking Reform.” The paper takes a different approach to a position similar to Jonathan Rauch in his recent book Political Realism (who incorporated arguments from other academics as well) arguing for changes to federal campaign finance law that would empower political parties. The paper is a welcome addition to the latent field of serious discussions about the future of campaign finance, and is particularly surprising because its publication comes as other “watchdog” groups continue to bark at everything and as presidential candidates roll out grandiose non-starters like constitutional amendments to overturn the Citizens United decision.
Vandewalker and Weiner do not accept Citizens United or other recent First Amendment decisions that freed up certain campaign activity like independent expenditures. However, the authors recognize that while independent groups may now accept unlimited contributions, political parties remain restricted and unnecessarily hindered. Rather than simply call for unlikely stopgap measures or radical changes to the law that are even more unlikely, the authors call for a cautious deregulation of certain aspects of party fundraising. That is, instead of wholeheartedly endorsing new efforts to silence some speakers in the name of leveling the playing field or ending nebulous “corruption,” the paper argues for bringing some equality to deregulation.
The overarching concern of the paper remains the supposed ill effects of money in politics, including polarization, shutting out the average citizen from the political process, and corruption. I take issue with all of these bases, particularly the latter two, but agree that “[p]arty committees, especially at the state and local level, offer multiple points of entry to the political process for ordinary citizens.” Although anyone can (with help from an attorney and accountant) form a super PAC or advocacy organization, parties traditionally have more members, staying power and can be effective without much money (and, in fact, a very powerful counter to big money, particularly in local elections). Parties also continue to do things other organizations typically don’t do at all: “[T]raditional party organizations have historically played a key role in getting voters to the polls on Election Day, and they continue to be experts at voter registration and get-out-the-vote activities.”
The reforms to party restrictions that Vandewalker and Weiner consider are public financing of parties, raising limits on party contributions to candidates and eliminating party coordination restrictions, removing federal restrictions on certain local activities like get-out-the-vote efforts, raising the contribution disclosure threshold to $1,000, indexing contribution limits to inflation, and raising contribution limits for certain activities (again, like get-out-the-vote efforts). I largely agree with all of the changes save for the authors’ glowing endorsement of public financing. Very few proposals ever flesh out the numbers for federal, nationwide public financing regimes, but estimates in the billions are not farfetched, especially if the program were as successful as reformers’ hope. Politically speaking, establishing such a costly program for campaigns that already manage to get funded with completely voluntary contributions that are not even tax deductible, I think large-scale public financing is a pipe dream. There might be constitutional problems with lifting party contributions to candidates when we consider independent candidates candidates who want to run with no party affiliation at all at the cost of being completely cut off from an uncapped funding source. Otherwise, the proposals are sensible, politically feasible and, most importantly, constitutional.
The reservations that Vandewalker and Weiner raise about the effectiveness of these proposals are well-thought. It is true that culturally we now live in an age when elections—particularly presidential elections—are candidate-driven and not party-driven. (Dare we speak the name of the so-called elephant in the room?) So, enabling the parties may not necessarily empower them. Furthermore, the McCutcheon decision from the Supreme Court last year already raised parties’ contribution limits, along with the “CRomnibus” amendments by Congress. “In total, for the 2016 cycle, a single individual donor can give more than $2.5 million to the state and national committees of one party. That is roughly 35 times higher than what the same donor could give at the beginning of 2014.” (Emphasis added.) Thus, it’s worth watching the coming election cycle to see just how much parties can capitalize on these new limits, and adjust the authors’ recommendations accordingly. Indeed, the parties are certainly trying to capitalize.
Despite its welcome realism, the paper is peppered with tired talking points, perhaps only to retain credibility with reformers who are sure to take issue with the authors’ main arguments. In criticizing super PACs, the authors frequently refer to these organizations’ speech as “ostensibly” or “putatively” independent, unregulated by “misguided rulings” from the Federal Election Commission. At one point, in a footnote, the authors write “many supposedly independent expenditures . . . actually are not independent of candidates or parties according to any common-sense meaning of the word.” This is little more than red meat for the tourists. Very little in campaign finance law is common-sense, in large part due to the courts’ efforts to salvage it in the midst of candidates, parties, and ordinary citizens bringing cases against its all-too-frequent abridgment of free speech. Coordination is no exception, and these references in the paper only illustrate that while the authors open up a welcome, serious discussion there is still a great deal of seriously unserious rhetoric to rebuke in campaign finance.
My reservations (and the slight zing in this post’s title) notwithstanding, it is notable when agreement is found between proponents of campaign regulation and proponents of free speech. Furthermore, it is commendable when this comes with the betrayal of (or at least stark divergence with) what many in the campaign “reform” community would consider sacred principles and their efforts to implement them. A sign of this division may have already occurred. In July, Brennan Center joined a letter sent to senators opposing a rider to a bill that would loosen regulation of party coordination. However, the rider remains and another letter was sent this week to President Obama urging a veto. This time, Brennan Center did not join the letter. (Two other groups, People For the American Way and Rootstrikers, did not join the most recent letter, either.) Vandewalker and Weiner are not newfound champions of free speech, and neither am I suddenly a campaign finance reformer. But “Stronger Parties, Stronger Democracy” offers mostly constitutional, politically-possible amendments to the law that could make parties competitive, and for that I offer a hat-tip of respect and gladly share a small patch of common ground with the Brennan Center.