Mark Schmitt on New Directions in Political Reform

February 6, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

It is no secret that the campaign finance debate has become fruitless and repetitious – – in short, exhausted. Mark Schmitt of the New America Foundation, a powerful progressive voice on reform, is one among a number of who believes that the entire question should be rethought from scratch. He has published a paper through a collaborative effort of the Brennan Center for Justice and the New America Foundation, arguing for a new framework built around a conception of political opportunity. He should win a large audience for what he says about the staleness and inaccuracies in the policy debate, and for the suggestions he makes for a change in direction.

On the debate: a lot of it is badly out of date, stuck in the old perspectives on how contributions and expenditures can “corrupt” candidates. Schmitt correctly believes that this debate has greatly oversimplified the questions raised by money in politics. In sum, he sees money as having serious or pervasive effects throughout the political process and its influence is wrongly minimized and certainly not properly gauged if it is examined solely within the electoral zone—as a matter of “campaign finance.” He writes: “[E]lections, campaign spending, and even the work of registered lobbyists make up a relatively small part of the ‘marketplace of ideas’ by which some ideas prevail and others never even make it onto the agenda.” The problem he considers central is that of “cumulative inequality, in which the winners in one sphere reinforce their advantages in the others, closing out new entrants.”

He recommends a program to enhance “political opportunity,” by which he means generally “to create structures that ensure opportunity for people, organizations, ideas and visions that are currently shut out of the political process.” He puts significant emphasis on public financing mechanisms, referring to examples like New York City’s small contribution matching program and suggesting as the best course a combination of matching programs with vouchers or credits. He notes the possibility of structuring rules to reward grassroots organizing. One example is the small donor PAC that would be limited to contributions of no more than $250 but given more legal flexibility, including higher limits on giving, to “encourage organizing and help causes that do not have wealthy supporters to be heard.” With his emphasis on broadening reform beyond the electoral sphere, he favors a proposal like Heather Gerken’s to provide publicly funded research support to public officials otherwise dependent on well-funded private lobbying. And he invites consideration of voting system reforms like instant run-off and ranked-choice voting.

The question now how these proposals will be received by the warring camps in the world of campaign finance.

Schmitt might make headway with both in suggesting that it is time to reconsider the long-held assumptions and arguments. For example:


–focusing on leveling up—opening up opportunities for participation rather than limiting political action or speech in a narrowed attack on “corruption”;

–paying close attention to the power of technology to support the expansion of political opportunity—and worrying less about regulating television access and advertising;

–focusing disclosure policy on “large expenditures” and considering measures to protect small donors from intrusive disclosure requirements; and

–widening the discussion to include lobbying and not targeting and widening regulation of the “electoral zone.”


Less certain to bring the two sides together into productive conversation would be:


–public financing;

–structuring contribution limits and similar restrictions to encourage certain forms of organizing over others, which entrusts the state to establish restrictions from which certain types of associations are exempted; and

–an occasional introduction of old-style preoccupations, like discouraging “negative attacks”


All in all, Schmitt continues to make a major contribution to moving from the past to the future in thinking about political reform.  This is a progressive program, of course, and conservative or libertarian readers will balk at certain of his lines of analysis and points of emphasis. But the thinking on display is fresh and, on key issues in the current reform debate, insightful. This paper deserves a wide readership.

Leave a Reply