Thursday, May 9, 2013

No, Campaign Money Isn't the Root of All Evil

The Brennan Center's Jonathan Backer gets upset with Ezra Klein's recent (excellent) post in which he concluded that money in the 2012 elections turned out to be rather less of a threat to democracy than many had feared in the post-Citizens United world. Backer's point: well, maybe Super PACs didn't change the election results, but surely they changed the politicians who received all that money.

I doubt it. And Backer's examples certainly don't convince me.

First example?
The National Rifle Association spent nearly $20 million in the 2012 election on outside spending, making it the 15th largest independent spender. Is it any wonder senators facing tough re-election contests in 2014, such as Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), voted against universal background checks for gun purchases despite near-consensus support among the public?
C'mon. Does anyone, really, believe that it's campaign finance, rather than fear (justified or not) of voters' reaction to the policy position, which drove the votes of these Senators? Yes, yes, background checks polls really well -- but gun control doesn't in the states of those Senators who voted against it. Those Senators are almost certainly driven by the campaign messages that would be used if they voted the other way, not the incremental change in how much campaign money they and their opponents would have. Surely it's not as if gun control used to pass easily before Citizens United opened the floodgates.

Second example? Even weaker:
And while the threat of a double-dip recession couldn’t persuade Congress to avert the self-imposed sequester, the typically languid House and Senate did manage in a mere six days to grant the Federal Aviation Administration more flexibility in managing the cuts — the only exception of its kind. While 800,000 workers experience cuts to unemployment benefits and 140,000 fewer families receive low-income housing vouchers, those people don’t exert enough power and influence to extract concessions from Congress. Would these people have more clout if they had the means to make large campaign contributions?
Where to begin...well, first of all, there is no Super PAC for air travelers. So the assertion that it's campaign finance that makes elected officials especially responsive to them appears to be an enormous stretch. Why might politicians care more about airport delays than low-income housing? Well, first of all, a lot more people fly than receive government housing assistance. Second, the middle class and wealthy people who fly are more likely to vote than poor people are. Third: politicians themselves spend tons of time in airports, but no Member of Congress qualifies for low-income housing help. Fourth: Members of Congress, successful professionals all, tend to have social networks largely composed of those middle-class and wealthy people crowding the airports.

Would any of that change if campaigns were financed differently? Nope. It's worth recalling that the two presidents elected during the era of almost pure (general election) public financing, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, were no different than presidents elected before or after them on these sorts of issues.

Stepping back from these particular examples...the main effect, in my view, of the hunt for campaign money  is that on the time of the candidates; we've read the horror stories of how much time Members of Congress are expected to spend raising money, and that is a real scandal. My reading of the research (and I'll admit I'm not fully up to date), however, is that it's very difficult to connect campaign donations to particular acts that legislators make. That's especially true for high-profile issues such as guns. If campaign donations change policy positions of politicians, it's most likely to happen on obscure, little-reported (but still perhaps important) measures, especially ones that no one in their district has direct interest in.

As it happens, I'm in favor of partial public financing of House and Senate elections (floors, not ceilings!). But not because I think that it would magically change the interests represented in Congress.* The truth is that there are lots and lots of reasons why politicians pay more attention to wealthy and middle class constituents than to poor ones, and it's not clear that campaign finance is on the list of reasons at all, let alone at the top.

*Why then? In order to encourage at least minimally competitive elections in far more seats. Far too many House and even Senate elections fail to attract quality candidates from both major parties; I think partial public financing would stand a very good chance of improving that situation.


  1. What about Republicans versus European right-wing parties on global warming?

    The most convincing story I've heard is that American oil and coal companies can and do buy off politicians; then via elite signaling Republican voters who came to the party for other reasons learn the "correct" position is not to believe in the greenhouse effect.

    It's not as if global climate change is more or less real in the USA. And the median voter doesn't work for a coal or oil company or otherwise have a dramatically different economic stake in the issue. Why isn't it the interest group's money acting on politicians? (And sure, secondarily on voters directly, but I bet the main vector is companies -> politicians -> voters.)

    1. I think it's hard to make the case that campaign finance is the cause of this.

      Big, important (in the sense of being large employers, large taxpayers, socially prominent, etc.) interests are likely to have a fair amount of influence in any democracy. It's a mistake to assume that the influence comes through campaign spending.

  2. Do more Americans fly than need federal assistance?

  3. John, you make some good points. But let's be clear. Can we attribute, at least some of the blame for not getting AS effective Wall Street reform, sane gun laws, and climate change legislation through Congress because of money? I know the NRA may not have won in 2012, but if I'm getting money for the NRA, and they aren't happy with my votes, that $_____ dollars less that I will receive from them.

  4. The burden shouldn't be on those who want public financing of campaigns to demonstrate that private financing is harmful rather the burden should be on those who support private financing of campaigns to demonstrate that there are actual benefits to private campaign financing.

    Private financing of campaigns at the very least creates the appearance of undue influence for the affluent against the masses. That is harmful to democracy. Furthermore, it is known congresspersons do respond more to affluent voters than the masses. That is harmful to democracy. The fact that a causal relationship hasn't been established does not justify keeping in place private campaign financing when there are no clear benefits to the public good for such a system.

    It is up to you who support private campaign financing to show me why this system should be kept in place. Where are the benefits of private campaign financing.

  5. I always think it's a mistake to think of this issue in terms of its effect on any one vote, or indeed on any one race.

    Rather than being something that causes specific instances of corruption or unfairness, I tend to think of the vast amounts of money involved as sort of-- raising the entry price to get into politics. Demoralizing people into believing that all politicians are bought and paid for, and therefore it's useless to care about their actions.

    I don't know. I'm sure we wouldn't have a bunch of Mr. Smiths going to Washington if there were no money in campaigns, and I'm sure that probably wouldn't be an unadulterated good if we did. And I'm sure the powerful and successful would have a large influence on basically any system, because they're the sort of people who become powerful and successful.

    But if nothing else, it seems to me that just cutting a huge chunk of money out of the system might open it up further to classes of people who are traditionally left out, and at least convince a lot more people they have a CHANCE to make a difference. And that might be worth something, even if it didn't change the result of one single election or floor vote.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?