The Public Financing Question

October 30, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

Tom Edsall’s piece on Congressional public financing proposals imparts a good sense of both their appeal and their vulnerabilities—the reasons why they have strong supporters and equally committed detractors.  Of all the points of disagreement, perhaps the simplest is the use of public money: either you believe that political reform, like any other, requires funding, or you will protest that the use of taxpayer dollars is nothing more than “welfare for politicians.”  Should the argument move from there, the competing claims about costs and benefits are notoriously hard to test, and what passes for an acceptable case depends on profound differences in political perspective.

These are the principal claims:

–less corruption: that dependence on private funding can lead to quid pro quo corruption;

–better public policy: that candidates who spent too much time fundraising develop a skewed view of public and policy    priorities–and there can be a related objective, highlighted by Edsall, that public financing schemes will result in better progressive policy, such as a higher minimum wage, stronger gun controls and the abolition of the death penalty;

–better electoral process: that ordinary citizens without wealth or high-level connections would have more of a chance to run      for office, offering more choice in candidate backgrounds, worldviews and platforms;

–better government: that candidates would spend less time on fundraising and more at their jobs;

–more political equality: that the political system would benefit overall from a more “level playing field.”

These arguments can blend, of course, into one another: corrupt politics is not good government, and it can exacerbate political inequality and produce poor policy.  Other arguments can cut both ways. For example, officeholder time is valuable, and there are good reasons to keep it from being consumed by fundraising, but skeptics of reform point out that regulated politics can also take up a fair amount of time, forcing politicians functioning under contribution limits to devote that much more time to dialing for dollars and romancing donors.

Proposals designed to serve these various proposals will be politically controversial. As Edsall notes about the example he reviews, they are also complex.  A well-designed public financing system is necessarily intricate.  Complexity increases the odds of unintended consequences, and it is an administrative challenge that can lead to major frustrations over the quality and competence of implementation.  Candidates, political parties and others operating within the system invariably test its limits under the pressures of competition.  Regulators respond, compounding the complexity.  The courts become quickly involved in the fight over how much authority the government has to make all this work.

Edsall concludes by citing Rick Hasen for the proposition that this can all work with a different Supreme Court willing to bless “reasonable” regulation.  We’ve been arguing over what is “reasonable” for decades.  When Justice Stevens has proposed a constitutional amendment to allow for “reasonable” campaign finance regulation, including spending limits, Rick rightly pointed out that:

The question of reasonableness inevitably would become a judicial one: What makes Justice Stevens think the current Supreme Court, which finds that all of these limits impinge too much on the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment, would find such limits reasonable under this new (30th?) amendment? Or things could work the other way: Courts in future times could allow any limits on money in politics, even those that might be aimed at, and be successful at, squelching political competition. That could be just as bad, or worse, than what we have now.

Rick knows that the argument will continue, but he believes, as do others, that with one vote added to the Court tally on the reform side, First Amendment doctrine can be made more accommodating.  This is true—one more vote would make a difference—but it won’t settle the question of what is “reasonable”, and there is always a losing side dedicated to changing the outcome again.

This is the set of difficulties facing a comprehensive public financing reform program at the federal level.  At the state and local level, there may be similar conflicts but it all depends on the politics of the particular location.  In New York City, there seems to be strong support for the matching fund program and a basis for the belief that it has gone well. The expansion to the federal level of a system like this —one that stands the chance of acceptance and therefore durability–will also depend on winning strong majority support for it, which can be done only by winning the political argument.

In the meantime, there are steps that could conceivably be taken with bipartisan support.  Current public financing proposals would also restore the tax credit for smaller individual donations (maybe even a voucher program for the same purpose).  This is a constructive measure, not complicated, and it does not require agreement about what is “good policy” or “good government”, nor confidence that it will induce public officials to behave better or make more productive use of their time.  There are Republicans who might join Democrats in supporting it.  Jan Baran pointed out to Edsall that taxpayers who may resist payments to politicians “like tax credits for themselves”.

This would seem a reasonable place to start, and taxpayers might appreciate that the first step of the reform is straightforwardly about and for them, aimed simply at broadening their opportunity to participate in the political process.  The discussion can go on from there.

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