Entry Points for a Conversation about Campaign Finance

October 27, 2014
posted by Bob Bauer

A recent posting here reviewed possible paths for campaign finance regulation: a determined attack on loopholes, a biding for time until scandal possibly arrives and allows for legislative reform and expanded opportunity for regulation, or an openness to rethinking the issue?

Which of these is chosen will be influenced by which aspect of campaign finance is thought to be really pressing: how much money is spent (volume); how it is spent (influence), and how much is publicly known about it (transparency). Of course, in any critique of campaign finance, from the left or right, there is a little bit of everything thrown in, but one of these three considerations is usually emphasized over the others.

In the last week, for example, Timothy Egan writes about the volume of spending, and he blames Citizens United. The harm to which he points is the “corrosive and dispiriting effect” all of this spending on American faith in self-governance. A lack of transparency is part of the problem—money escaping into the “shadows”—and he is also troubled by the source, the few and wealthy, and their influence. But there is the sheer quantity of it: “spending by outside groups has gone to $1 billion in 2012 from $52 million in 2000.” The electorate is disgusted. Egan’s article headline is titled “The Disgust Election.” The question Egan is asking is one heard, too, after McCutcheon: “Did anyone think we needed more money in politics?”

In the same week, writing from a different perspective, George Will worries about the regulation of how political money is spent. His example of a rule gone badly astray is the Wisconsin investigation of illegal coordination between Governor Scott Walker and his political supporters. He argues that once the government can serve subpoenas and conduct investigative raids to pry into consultations among allies about political spending, the campaign finance laws are exposed for the serious damage they do to constitutional guarantees and values. Will ropes into his analysis the IRS’s management of its tax-exemption granting authority and makes the claim that these government-directed activities have the capacity to decide elections. Standing quite opposed to Will are critics of coordinating practice that threatens to eviscerate the contribution limits.

Then the FEC resumed its disagreements after a brief respite during which it approved rulemakings. The issue was transparency and, in particular, whether special exemptions for Internet ads are appropriate.  Commissioner Ravel contends that expensively produced ads on the Internet should carry the same disclaimers as those run on the air. Other Commissioners disagree, except, as under current rules, where the advertiser is paying to have an ad posted to a site that is not its own. Press commentators jumped to express alarm that new moves were afoot to limit free speech in cyberspace.

Sorting out the question of emphasis will heavily influence the debates head. Is it the “how much” that triggers voter disgust? Or the particulars of how it is spent? Or the amount of information about any of this that the law will require be disclosed? How the conversation begins says a lot about where it goes from there, and how it will end.

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