The argument over the constitutionality of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission can go the way of plain language debates, and it can also branch off into the question of whether it is good to have legislators function under the threat of initiative. A fine brief filed by Professor Nate Persily, on behalf of himself and eminent political scientists Bruce Cain and Bernard Grofman, takes on that question, among others, and answers it in the affirmative.

Under their theory, legislators who know that the public might act in their place may engage in constructive defensive maneuvers: they may make more of an effort to craft a redistricting map that is fair or not lopsidedly partisan. And even if the voters take this decision out of their hands, the lawmakers will be spared the bloody battles that are singularly damaging to legislators' working relationships across-the-board.

On this view, initiatives like the one in Arizona can be defended as effective in structuring incentives for sound legislative decision-making or in protecting against the collapse of comity. But they can also draw the objection that the effect of these incentives is uncertain and that this uncertainty exacerbates constitutional concerns about the invasion of a legislature’s authority.

Common Cause has produced a report to show the involvement of the “religious right” in a systematic legal attack on campaign finance restrictions. At the center of the tale is lawyer Jim Bopp and around him are clients with passionate commitments who wish pursue them without financing limitations or disclosure.  Common Cause describes this as a “crusade.”

As a descriptive piece, there is nothing wrong with this report. The activities of Bopp and his clients are presented with reasonable accuracy, as far as one can tell.  But on another level, the report could be read to be making a political point—to imply that the religious right, waging this “crusade” against campaign finance, is exhibiting an unsavory zealotry on regulatory issues like the one some might attribute to its religious commitments. The word “crusade” is not here a throw -away.  It appears in the title of the Report, then again in the Executive Summary, and finally once more in the Conclusion.  It is an imputation to this cause of extremism.

The Corruption of Campaigns v. The Corruption of Government

February 23, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

The study by Emory’s Alan Abramovitz, recently discussed by Jonathan Bernstein, heavily discounts the effect of heavy outside spending on the 2014 Congressional elections. His conclusion: that the impact was zero or barely higher, and that the more significant factors were state-level presidential partisanship and incumbency.  But neither Abramovitz nor Bernstein mean to wave away the public policy or regulatory implications of campaign spending.  Candidates still need the money and ask for it, and questions are raised by their dependence on those who supply it.

Still, this study and others are useful reminders of a confusion in the campaign finance debate—the difference between conceptions of a healthy electoral process and worries about the corruption of government. It is not necessary to the importance of donors or spenders that they be clearly able to “buy elections."  It should be enough that their spending might sway the choice of the campaign issues raised and debated and determine the competitiveness of candidates associated with particular policy positions. This is not a question of the effect of their money on government, but on the electoral process itself. 

Cause for Complaint to the FEC

February 19, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer
Larry Lessig and Brad Smith remain at odds over the complaint Professor Smith’s organization, the Center for Competitive Politics, filed against Mayday PAC for violating the disclaimer rules. While not using precisely this word, Lessig believes that the CCP action was petty.  The problem, he says, was a breakdown in approval procedures and vendor performance, and no one was harmed.  Smith has no use for the excuse and he says that an organization dedicated to regulating political activity ought to be held to account for violating the regulations it is dedicated to promoting.
More balance in the public and press discussion of campaign finance issues would be desirable. This last week the FEC held a hearing, and whatever press coverage came out of it was largely devoted to belittling it.  And then there was more of the same: