There are two problems, one closely related to the other, with Rick Hasen’s Supreme Court-centered analysis of how the campaign finance reforms of the 1970s have fallen on hard times. The first, discussed here, is that the Court cannot bear all of the blame. The law ran into difficulties from the beginning, and it is primarily in recent years, when problems with the law had become evident, that the Court majority has given the Watergate-era statute a hard push toward collapse. It may well be that Justices hostile to the law in principle were pleased to be presented with the opportunity to pick it apart. But there was ample opportunity.

But now, having assigned so much fault to the Court, Rick is virtually required to build a reform program around changing its composition.  Progressives have a 5-4 problem now, and all it would take to solve it is one more vote. He states his point like this:

It likely will take a progressive Supreme Court reversing Citizens United and Buckley to provide the opportunity to enact comprehensive campaign reform and then to see the effects of more than a half-hearted reform upon governance.
Election Law’s Path in the Roberts Court’s First Decade: A Sharp Right Turn But with Speed Bumps and Surprising Twists (August 4, 2015). UC Irvine School of Law Research Paper No. 2015-70. Available at SSRN:, at 27.

Is this a viable or promising reform strategy?  Recent experience suggests it is not.

In judging the Robert’s Court record on campaign finance, Rick Hasen finds that progressives have little to cheer about, except that it might have been worse.  He looks into the reasons why the Court majority has moved more slowly toward deregulation than some might have predicted, and, as one might expect, his analysis is insightful. Election Law’s Path in the Roberts Court’s First Decade: A Sharp Right Turn But with Speed Bumps and Surprising Twists (August 4, 2015). UC Irvine School of Law Research Paper No. 2015-70. Available at SSRN: But he also assigns the Court heavy responsibility for the state of reform.  Hasen writes that, as a result of decisions like Citizens United and McCutcheon, the Roberts Court majority has “caused the existing campaign finance system to slowly implode,” launching reform into a” death spiral” and erecting “structural impediments” that prevent further reform.

To be sure, the Court’s rulings have contributed to the collapse of the ‘70s reforms, and there is no doubt that its jurisprudence complicates the pursuit of reform programs—that is, certain reform programs that follow the very Watergate-era model that has largely come apart.  But an account focused on the Court skips to the middle of the story; it leaves too much out.

Judging the Impact of Super PACs

September 25, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

When Governor Scott Walker ended his Presidential candidacy, which happened after Rick Perry suspended his, commentators marveled that they could be done for and have well funded Super PAC still idling nearby.  It has been assumed that a conclusion was ready to be drawn—the more conclusive, the better.  The proposition that Super PACs rule the world has met with the objection that, no, they really don’t, not as we once thought.

Case in point: a piece in Salon, whose author, Sean Illing, wishes to show that, as the title states, Plutocrats still Reign, and that Walker’s withdrawal is no “defeat” for their Super PACs.  Very few commentators actually argued that Walker’s downfall signaled the end of plutocratic control.  If not that, then, what does the Walker’s withdrawal have to teach about the power and limits of Super PACs?

Parties and the Rethinking of Reform: Part II

September 21, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

When New York Times columnist Tom Edsall wrote recently about the winners and losers in each phase of campaign finance, he reminded readers how things have often turned out differently than predicted.  Not every projection was wrong, of course: some experts were right to imagine that the parties would decline and “outside groups” would prosper after McCain-Feingold.  But in the particulars, and especially after the courts began carving up the new law, the changes have included surprises, like the coming of Super PACs.  Now there is an interest in adjustments to respond to the unexpected and undesirable, and the reinvigoration of political party organizations has received the most attention.

How far to go is an outstanding question among those who favor aid to parties.  The Brennan Center counsels against substantial increases in contribution limits or doing away with the limits completely.  Heather Gerken and Joey Fishkin concur.  They worry that greatly expanded sources of private funding for parties could be a mistake, and as their writing on campaign finance is always fresh and provocative, it is well worth exploring their concerns.

Parties and the Rethinking of Reform

September 17, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

On the same day, two well-informed observers have written that measures, including steps toward deregulation, should be considered to strengthen political parties.  Tom Edsall who has studied campaign finance for years stated his position in a column he authors for The New York Times.  The Brennan Center at NYU put out a report, entitled Stronger Parties, Stronger Democracy, and revealingly, the subtitle is Rethinking Reform.  In both cases, the analysis and associated recommendations are built on the recognition that times have changed and that reform has to be "rethought."

Edsall goes farther than the more cautious Brennan Center.  He would have all limits on contributions to parties lifted, with only the requirement of what he refers to as "maximum transparency."  In his view, the last decades’ effort to limit money in politics has failed.  At the same time the winners and losers created by reform enactments have not sorted out as reformers had anticipated. Corporations and large donors have done quite well.  So have lawyers and television stations.  Overall confidence in the political process has not changed for the better.  Edsall argues that better funded parties will enable the system of government to function better, because party leaders will have more tools at their disposal to manage their extremes and broker constructive compromises.