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.

The Brennan Center would take things more slowly.  It would like to see small donations to parties encouraged through public financing mechanisms, more targeted relief for voter mobilization activities, and more room for state and local parties to recruit voters into the fold and to the polls.  The Center favors raising or striking the limits on how much parties can spend on behalf of their candidates, but it does not want to invite more generous party contribution limits, other than adjustments that may be useful in stimulating voter mobilization or to assure that contribution limits keep pace with inflation.

A conversation has begun and, as the differences between Edsall and the Brennan Center illustrate, it does not have to culminate in an “either-or” choice: regulation or virtually none at all.  In each case–Edsall’s emphasis on transparency, and in the Center’s step-by-step approach–there is a recognition that reform objectives are appropriately kept in view as the overall Watergate-era regulatory model is reevaluated.  But the reevaluation is necessary and there has been significant movement in that direction, now blessed by a leading reform organization and one of the press’ more informed and experienced commentators on campaign finance.  It’s an approach also well worth taking beyond parties for testing elsewhere in the world of campaign finance.

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