Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Functional/Dysfunctional II

On a totally different topic...

Ryan Lizza did some awesome reporting today: he happened to be sitting near a new Member of Congress who was doing fundraising calls, and Lizza live-tweeted the whole thing. John Sides has it all here.

There's nothing new here, but it's always good to get an honest look at what the current campaign finance regime does to politicians.

I have to say, however, after the last presidential election...I'm not as enthusiastic about my preferred fix as I used to be. As regular readers know, I'm for floors, not ceilings, plus disclosure -- let them raise what they want from who they want, but add some minimal level of public financing so that it's pretty easy for the parties to field active candidates even in tough districts. The research that backs this up is the idea that campaign spending yields diminishing returns (and so, for House races, the first $500K is far more important than getting from $5M to $5.5M), and therefore allowing candidates to raise money in very large chunks would not have important effects on election results. As far as influence over politicians in office, meanwhile, raising money in large chunks makes effective disclosure a lot easier because it should be pretty easy for the press and opponents to identify major donors -- and if Members want to take their money and be responsive to them, then the voters can know about it and approve or disapprove.

All that is still valid, in my view. However, another positive effect of floors, not ceilings, is that it would allow politicians to raise the same amount of money in less time, thus freeing up their time for actually doing their jobs.

But I don't really believe that any more. The incentives seem to run one way: more. And there just doesn't seem to be any kind of rational calculation about the marginal effects of another hour of fundraising. If that's true, then it doesn't really matter how easy it is to raise money; incumbents are still going to spend ridiculous amounts of time and energy on it. The only solution to that would be full public financing, and that's unrealistic both politically and (probably) Constitutionally, and in my view a bad idea anyway -- I think people should be able to participate in elections, including financially.

I don't know; I'd be interested in suggestions. Other than full public financing (again, regardless of what one wants, it's not going to happen): is there any realistic way to put Members of the House back to work and off this particular set of phones?

11 comments:

  1. It's easy to see why pols like fundraising. It's just like normal politicking except, instead of getting a vague promise from a voter, you get cold hard cash! What's not to like?

    Seriously, though: what about a law strictly limiting the number of hours members of Congress can spend fundraising? They'd have to catalog their hours schmoozing up billionaires at $10,000-plate dinners, phone calls, writing letters, etc.

    Of course it sounds ridiculous and unenforceable, but there are a lot of ridiculous and unenforceable laws out there! Besides, most members of Congress are lawyers so they should be familiar with the process of meticulously keeping track of how they spend their work day (or how to circumvent that process, I suppose).

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    1. House rules could set aside a single day every week, say Tuesdays, for fund-raising. If they need to legislate on a Tuesday, they would swap it for some other day on a later week. Otherwise, they legislate.

      Currently, the Republicans farm out writing legislation to various outside groups, and that's doing few people very much good.

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    2. that's doing few people very much good.

      ...but it's doing those few people a great deal of good/money, and they are very rich/influential people!

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  2. campaign finance reforms seem as though they never will work. With the introduction of Super PACs and Romney and Obama rejecting public financing I really wonder if there is anything that can stop the influence of money on elections or if it has gone too far. There needs to be Senators and Congressmen committed to making this change for it to ever work sadly.

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  3. If political professionals, in general, would lose the incentives to spend money, then it wouldn't get spent. The problem is, though, few of the professionals believe there is a point of diminishing returns. Conventional campaign wisdom takes hold and it's hard to lose it.

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    1. Ah, do they actually believe that, or are they incentivized to?

      Many campign consultants on the media side don't just make the ads; they're also the media buyers, and they make 10% (ish) of the ad buy for calling WKRP and purchasing the ad time. No wonder they think they work so well!

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  4. Ok so Im on board with the idea that there "doesn't seem to be any kind of rational calculation about the marginal effects of another hour of fundraising." It's very likely true that 20 hours a week of fundraising is going to give an extremely small benefit over just 19 hours a week, in terms of direct electoral benefit to the candidate. But might there also be some important signalling effects? Do party actors and congressional leadership look at fundraising ability and/or effort as a proxy for political aptitude and dole out perks accordingly? Or is there at least some fear among rank-and-file members that this is the case, fueling the fundraising arms race?

    I'm just not willing to buy that the totality of Congress is that irrational when it comes to campaign effects. I mean some of them, yeah. But not all of them. So there seemingly has to be more to it.

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  5. Nobody ever likes my ideas, but let's put it out there one more time. As in the United Kingdom and other civilized countries, the TIME for formal campaigning is strictly limited.

    Presidential campaign committees may form and begin raising money on Jan. 15th of the election year; before that, it must be a death penalty/property confiscation type of crime to raise money for any type of election effort. Senate and Governor committees may begin Feb. 15th of the election year, and House and local office candidates on Mar. 5th of the election year.

    No primary may be held before April 1 of the election year, and all primaries must be completed by August 10th. Any state holding its primary among the first 25% in elapsed time in one election year must be among the last 25% in time the next election year, and all state laws to the contrary are null and void -- let's end the tyranny of Iowa and New Hampshire and godawful South Carolina.

    Further: no person, especially including the candidate, may make personal loans to a campaign committee (or otherwise organized campaign vehicle). And all campaign funds not spent/committed by election day shall be donated, by the Dec. 15th following the election, to registered charities spending at least 70% of their funds directly feeding, sheltering or providing medical care to the indigent. No more officials sitting on campaign treasuries they can use to boost their buddies.

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    1. As a civil liberties fan, I have a serious problem with the campaigning limits (totally with you on the timing of primaries, though).

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  6. Your floor idea is to give them all a fixed amount and let them raise more in addition to that, right?

    Instead of that, do it the way presidential public financing (not used since Gore) is set up: you can get a fixed pot of public money OR you can raise your own. Except unlike the current presidential system, we should tie the amount offered to the average or median amount raised by winning candidates for that office in the last election, so it's always a viable and attractive option.

    If you make the public financing massive, candidates won't want to give it up. If they opt out, they have to sacrifice mountains of their time just to raise their way back up to the public level, and then even more to significantly outdo it. And if the level is set to match actual typical fundraising hauls, only the most prolific money grubbers will be able to substantially beat it even if they do bust their humps. So you'll have some well-off and well-backed candidates opting out of public funding, and exercising their right to buy unlimited speech. But the rest will say screw it, I'm taking the public money and doing something else with my time. They can be the ones who make the laws while the hotshots are working the phones.

    Just because you allow unlimited private funding doesn't mean you have to make it attractive. Of course a lot of countries--Israel is one--reject this premise, and have hard spending limits up front. (Plan B: Tell congressmen, "We should do it the Israeli way! You're not anti-Israel, are you?")

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    1. Plan B is cute.

      The thing is that presidential public financing worked that way in the 1970s and into the 1980s, but then during the soft money era it really was a floor -- the candidates were not allowed to raise and spend money, but the formal parties (and then, after reform, non-party parties) were, and in effect it was the same thing.

      And it worked just fine, IMO.

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