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.

Gerken and Fishkin see the official party as coexisting with shadow party organizations within a party “network,” with the difference lying in the bases of their support.  Official parties are closer to the party “faithful”: the volunteers and other party adherents who are their heart and soul.  These faithful “invest their time and energies in campaigns by volunteering, knocking on doors, showing up at caucuses, voting in primaries, raising small amounts of money, and even working full-time for campaigns.”  Joseph Fishkin and Heather Gerken, The Party’s Over: McCutcheon, Shadow Parties, and the Future of the Party System, Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 546, at 15,

As a result, the official party is not beholden, as is the shadow party, to the large donors.  Any enactment that would have them competing on comparable terms, within similar funding rules, would risk having them slowly become indistinguishable.  The faithful would lose out.  And the risk of the parties lapsing into serious corruption, as they answer to a freshly created class of benefactors, would rise.

This critique depends on a particular view of how official parties operate, and then on a prediction of what would happen if their funding were made equivalent or substantially increased.  Gerken and Fishkin argue that the faithful will become less important as the well-heeled become more prominent.  This picture, while useful in some respects, may be overdrawn in others.

Yes, the parties have members whose loyalty is indispensable, many of whom may be called on not only for their vote, but for their time and energy.  But the faithful that Gerken and Fishkin defend tend to travel with the candidates, not necessarily as much with the parties.  It is the rare party organization that can deploy a formidable force of volunteers.  Party units often contract for–outsource–the help they need to move about the community for literature drops, canvassing and other voter contact activities. Again, this is not always and in every election the same for all party committees all the time, but it overstates the case to appeal to hordes of faithful answering the party call with their time and energy.

It is helpful to consider in this connection the various ways that the official parties are set up.  Among the national party organizations, the congressional campaign committees are run by officeholders and staffed professionally in the nation’s capitol.  They don’t have state branches and while they communicate with the party membership, they do not put them directly in the field.  The candidates have the capacity “on the ground” to field the faithful, engaging with voters in their homes and in their neighborhoods.  At the next level, the state and local party committees’ organizational infrastructure is typically limited, and so is its capacity for supporting extensive membership mobilization.

This is where the question of money arises, and the parties find that—again with the assistance of candidates—they manage the best they can, but contemporary campaign finance rules place them clearly at a disadvantage in competing for influence with Super PACs and other “shadow organizations” aligned within the “network” Gerken and Fishkin describe.  Money counts in making the most of party loyalty; programs to reach and motivate party voters depend on funding.  If there is pressure to choose under conditions of limited resources—choosing between direct candidate support or party advertising, on the one hand, and the development of field and volunteer programs, on the other—the choice may not favor building the size and capacities of the faithful.  More funding for parties would then help make the most of the relationship between the party and its committed membership.

It can remain a concern that with more funding for parties, there is an elevated risk of corruption, and we are back to the McCain-Feingold rationale for limiting party money.   The degree of risk is a subject of deeply divided opinion.  The reformers of the 1990’s set out to prove massive quid pro quo corruption and never quite got there.  The bar was lowered, and illicit “corruption” was redefined for a time to mean preferential access to donors and the small but not the bigger favors that contributions could buy.  Then came another change in direction: the Roberts Court held that there is nothing wrong with access and ingratiation and, on its view of democratic theory, much to be said for both.

Also complicating the analysis is the very recasting of the parties as members of a “network,” one that includes the official party units and all other components, including the shadow parties operating through Super PACs, (c)(4)s, etc.  These other components, some associated with specific candidates, already function outside the federal law contribution limits.  Many say that we have returned to the Watergate era: the limits are gone and big money is now once again chasing after official goodwill.  If that is the case, however, it’s unclear what is gained by maintaining existing funding limits on official parties, which at least, as Edsall points out, are subject to comprehensive transparency requirements.

Gerken and Fishkin conclude with the suggestion that, while we cannot be certain about the effects of significantly liberalized funding for official parties, it may be best that we not find out.  But why not find out?  So many of the forecasts about the course of reform have proven to be mistaken, and some of them wildly wrong, that it might make sense to take a chance on the parties.  To do this, it is not necessary to go as far as Edsall does and support the elimination of all limits.  Raising those limits substantially, or targeting special relief for particular party activities (as the Brennan Center would consider), should be sufficient to see how the official parties can function with more support, on more even terms, with others competing for resources and influence.

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