Filthy Lucre and Clean Elections

Concerned about campaign finance reform? Then limit the power of government

Much wailing and gnashing of teeth greeted presidential candidates’ record-smashing first-quarter fundraising totals. Hillary led the pack with $26 million, Obama followed with $25 million, and Romney also cleared $20 million. Both parties’ candidates collected a total of over $125 million—and there are still 9 months before the Iowa caucus.

Woe is the Republic: As one valiant voice cried out to Obama, “I don’t want money to pick my next president. I want to pick my president.” But for all this hand-wringing—instinctive aversion to filthy lucre—campaign finance reform is quixotic and probably unnecessary. The only way to actually take money out of politics is to take power out of Washington: If there is less government power to buy, people will spend less money trying to buy it.

Given that the First Amendment protects citizens’ right “to petition the government for redress of grievances,” legislators have only limited constitutional leeway to regulate political expression. But without draconian speech restrictions, reformers are left with only marginal changes that do not affect the underlying incentives to donate, and, as a result, campaign finance reforms just shift money around. So, when “soft” money was banned by the 2002 McCain-Feingold reform, candidates raised more “hard” money, and 527s (such as the Swift Boat Veterans) picked up the remaining slack.

More importantly, reformers may be trying to solve a non-problem: Despite the appearance of corruption, it’s not clear how many donors actually attempt to buy political influence. Many contributions are motivated by social connections—people give money to friends, friends of friends, and so on—rather than a calculated effort to secure influence.

Furthermore, one can give money to support an ideology without attempting to buy influence—Greenpeace can hardly reward donors with earmarks Even corporation contributions are not necessarily profit-seeking investments. After all, companies donate extensively to charities—in fact, far more times more than to political campaigns—and it is plausible that many political contributions are likewise not profit-motivated.

That said, some donations are motivated by tangible material interests—but to what extent does this determine the outcome of elections?

Although money is necessary to win a modern campaign, its influence is easily over-estimated. Most successful candidates raise more money than their competitors, but most donors only want to give to a winning candidate, and therefore the fundraising disparity could simply reflect donors’ risk-aversion. It is a chicken or egg question: The same qualities that lead to electoral success—charisma, policies, and experience—also lead to increased donations, so it isn’t clear whether candidates win because they get more money, or vice-versa.

Moreover, as many have noted, if money does buy victory, Americans are selling their votes on the cheap. The total spending on the next presidential election is expected to exceed a billion dollars, but, in comparison, Americans will spend $10 billion on pornography next year. These figures either reflect the absurd ease of buying political success, or (more likely) the minimal impact of donations on election results.

The status quo isn’t perfect, but it also is not that bad, while the harm of futile finance reforms is clear and significant: It protects incumbents by dramatically raising the barriers to entry. Officeholders have significant advantages over challengers, such as name recognition and an established campaign team. In many cases, the best way to overcome these advantages is with money. But, because of campaign finance limitations, the only people who have the money to topple an incumbent are self-financed multi-millionaire challengers like New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, former CEO of Goldman Sachs.

In fact, campaign finance reforms have literally silenced potential critics: Independent groups are banned from mentioning candidates’ names in the last 60 days of the election, which is precisely when voters are paying attention. According to McCain, the problem was that, “these groups often run ads that the candidates themselves disapprove of.” Therefore the ads had to be banned—god forbid we lowly proles raise our voices. After all, in doing so, we might threaten a congressman’s re-election chances, and politicians certainly know how to protect their own.

Thus, campaign finance reform seems like a dangerous non-solution to a limited problem. But if taking money out of politics is indeed important, the only fail-safe means of doing so is to limit the size and power of the government. As Radley Balko, a senior editor at Reason magazine, recently argued, “The government can’t sell power and influence it doesn’t have.” If the federal trough were smaller, fewer special interest snouts could gorge themselves at the taxpayers expense, and therefore the pigs wouldn’t bother to buy influence. Diminishing the opportunities for rent-seeking would, in turn, redirect spending to investment and consumption, both of which create more social good than financing another attack ad.

Previous campaign reforms have failed not because they lack a magic ingredient, some legislative abracadabra, but because as long as the government wields extensive power to tax, spend, and regulate, interest groups will try to influence its actions. It’s not clear what proportion of campaign contributions are motivated by such rent-seeking (and therefore whether this is really a big problem), but unless we eviscerate the First Amendment or shrink the government, money is here to stay.

Piotr C. Brzezinski ’07 is an social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.