The Allure of Reform and A Modest Proposal

September 20, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

Matt Grossman and David A Hopkins have pronounced many decades of liberal reform to be a failure. In a new book, they argue that the 1970s reform program did not lead to the success of liberal policies but may have been primarily advantageous to "ideological Republicans." For a party that is "a coalition of social groups, each with pragmatic policy concerns," the Democrats wound up undermining the transactional politics among various interests that would produce their preferred policy outcomes. Making matters worse was a shift of voter sentiment against government-driven solutions. The Republicans, happy to oblige the popular sentiment by blocking legislation, fared better than Democrats actually interested in passing it. Grossman and Hopkins conclude that in the future, Democrats "should assess whether each potential change is likely to benefit the Democratic coalition or the more ideological Republicans."

The problem always is the hazard of predicting the partisan or policy impact of any reform measure. To the extent that Grossman and Hopkins are urging Democrats to guess, they are necessarily allowing for the fairly large possibility that they will guess wrong. And even the ways in which they may be wrong are not anticipated all that reliably. In other words, both the benefits and the costs--the shape of success and the look of failure--will be very hard to judge. The mistakes made can be costly.

None of this would matter if those promoting reform could satisfy themselves that it satisfied other measures of success. For example, do those reforms enhance public confidence in the political process, or lessen the risk of corruption in government? Not so much, it seems, which is not to say that things would not be worse on this score without the reforms. But if it is true that reforms have contributed little to the success of the progressive policy agenda, the absence of other consolations, like a government that enjoys the public’s confidence, only compounds the sense of failure and dissatisfaction.

The Grossman/Hopkins argument tends to strengthen the case for targeted modest reforms that don't rest on ambitious expectations about policy or partisan effects. Rather than each party trying to game which reforms will serve their particular interests, they might collaborate on purging the current regulatory system of its inanities, inconsistencies and inefficiencies.

The Transparency-Privacy Trade-Off (or Bargain)

September 13, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

The Brennan Center Report on the state of disclosure, “Secret Spending in the States,” usefully examines transparency policy issues presented by high-impact spending in low-information contests at the state and local level. It argues that dark money is not the only problem and focuses on the additional questions raised by "gray money" – –funding disclosed by reporting entities but received from organizations giving no indication of the interest or funding behind them. The Report then selects examples from various states of dark money and gray money controversies or issues. The Center sets out a program of reform and points to some progress made in the states.

The current divide over these reporting issues is so sharp that it is unlikely that the Center will immediately win over the usual skeptics. These skeptics’ complaint is that terms like “dark money” or “gray money” are highly charged but hopelessly vague, and that they are being used to justify proposed reforms that would impede the exercise of free speech rights. They are loathe to empower the government to do too much, and behind this is the conviction that government in the control of particular political interests will use disclosure to hound adversaries or subject them to public harassment.

But the skeptics might be surprised that the Brennan Center Report does not minimize the burdens and political risks of disclosure regimes. It argues for reasonable monetary thresholds, to keep the smaller contributions out of the public reports; for reasonable exemptions for especially vulnerable participants; and for "other reasonable accommodations" to allow donors to support organizations for charitable or social welfare purposes without falling within disclosure requirements that apply to the financing of political activities. In addition, the Center quite sensibly would have "[any] penalty for failure to disclose… fit the severity of the violation."

When the Law Can Seem a Bit Much, Mutch Explains

August 30, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

In this pre-Labor Day period when blogging will be light, here are a few notes:

1. Robert Mutch, who has written extensively about the history of campaign finance, has now published a guide to law and rules, Campaign Finance: What Everyone Needs to Know, just published by Oxford University Press. He means “everyone.” It is a citizen’s manual, with accessible explanations of abstruse statutory regulatory, and case law material, a chronology of major developments, and a glossary of key terms. He also provides throughout comments on the campaign finance reform debate. Mutch has a point of view on reform issues--who doesn’t?--but it is not harmful to his project. It adds a little zest to the discussion and more interest, therefore, for the general reader.  That reader has long deserved a resource like this, and here it is, courtesy of Robert Mutch.

2. That same general reader might want to puzzle over some of features of the well-worn law that is Mutch’s subject. An interesting case now on appeal to the Supreme Court, which goes by the name of a plaintiff with an unambiguous politics--Stop Reckless Economic Instability Caused by Democrats--questions why it is that political committees in existence for at least six months, so-called “multicandidate” committees, may give upon passing out of their infancy more to candidates but less to political parties (provided they also meet other minimal conditions on the level of support received and given).  The multi-candidate committee satisfying this 6-month waiting period can give a candidate another $2300 per election, for a total per election limit of $5,000. But its contributions to national and state parties are substantially cut from $32,400 to $5,000 and from $10,000 to $5,000, respectively.

Trump, Taxes, and the Choice of Law or Politics

August 18, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

Mark Patterson observes that Donald Trump refuses to make the personal tax disclosure that is routinely and without exception expected of senior federal officials. He describes Congress’ strict enforcement of this obligation, which includes the deep probing of returns by the Senate Finance and other congressional committees that, in Patterson’s words, require “answers [to] dozens of detailed questions about sources of income, deductions, investments, tax treatment (and immigration status] of domestic employees and other topics.” Yet Trump says that in his case, it is “none of your business,” and so he is relying on the absence of any legal requirement of disclosure to deny the public what the senior officials he would appoint if President would have to provide. Patterson recommends that either the law be amended to compel presidential candidates to release this information or to provide it to congressional committees for review followed by a public assessment. (Note: Mark is one my colleagues at Perkins Coie.)

Why would presidential candidates, charged with reporting specific categories of financial information, not have to include their tax returns? The choice now is deemed to be theirs: a choice determined only by the pressures, or incentives or disincentives, of the political “marketplace”, or a personal sense of ethical obligation.

Committing this question to a purely political resolution represents a judgment that voters will set and enforce the transparency standard. They will either reward disclosure or punish candidates for resisting it, but one way or the other, voter will is what counts, and there is no need or place for a legal requirement. In fact, on this theory, it is better for the question to be referred to the voters, because they are the ones to ‘vet” the presidential candidate and to insist on what information they should have to meet their “vetting” function.

Corporate Regulation of Internet Politics

August 15, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

Nate Persily has written intriguingly about the “dangers” and “opportunities” presented by the increasing prominence, and perhaps eventual dominance, of Internet platforms as outlets for paid political speech. We’re not in a television age anymore, he cautions. Now we have portals that have fundamental decisions to make about whether and how to apply policies devised for commercial speech to political communications. Those decisions concern standards of tone, fairness, accuracy and content, e.g. hate speech, but also those of transparency, such as requiring more complete disclosure than the just an organization’s name might provide of the true sources of financing for its paid ad.

The opportunity Professor Persily sees is for these Internet platforms to effect policies beyond the constitutional authority and probably the political reach of the government. The danger he points out is that private organizations may use their market power to engage in censorship practices and to do so without full transparency or accountability.

This is a timely, insightful call for attention to a transition in the political marketplace that might otherwise escape full and searching notice. A major problem is the one of trying to have it both ways. We might ask these Internet platforms to be restrained in the exercise of their power in some respects, but less in others, depending entirely on variable judgments of the worthiness of the goals. Professor Persily has suggested measures to address what he describes as “well-known pathologies of the campaign finance system.”