The Brookings Report on the State Parties

March 14, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

A Brookings Institution study of state parties, authored by Ray La Raja and Jonathan Rauch, is the latest of the sober commentaries on contemporary campaign finance.  La Raja and Rauch conclude that state parties have lost significant ground to outside groups and are impeded in large part by federal regulation, mostly by McCain-Feingold, in performing critical functions. They would like to see for these state parties increased or eliminated contribution limits, deregulation to enhance their ability to coordinate with candidates and to conduct ticket-wide activities, and perhaps even public financing measures in the form of tax deductible contributions.  The strengthening of state parties, they are convinced, can promote more moderate politics; it can offset to some extent the polarizing forces unleashed by “outside groups.”

It is a thoughtful report and a contribution to the growing consensus that campaign finance laws today are unworkable and in desperate need of reform.  The question is: are state parties, for the reasons given, an appropriately special focus of reform.

As the authors note, there are other reasons for the struggles of state parties and the rise of the outside groups.  Laws and rules may add to the problem but are not its exclusive cause. Much of what La Raja and Rauch say about state parties would apply to the parties as a whole, at the national as well as the state and local level, and there are other actors within the regulated system also clamoring with justification for relief from outdated, burdensome, and pointless regulatory limits.

The case for singling out the state parties rests on La Raja and Rauch’s belief that these organizations are “important nodes of the political equivalent of civil society,” capable of creating “social capital by building connections, trust, and cooperation across diverse individuals and groups.”

This is a strong claim.

It seems entirely fair to say that state parties have an important role in the electoral process—one ever harder for them to play—and that they should be spared overregulation in the age of Super PACs and freed to compete for influence and impact. Altogether different is the argument that, with regulatory relief and tax breaks, the state parties will surge into a leading role and promote “a better balanced, more effective, and more accountable political system.”  Maybe so but not for sure, and a reform program that distributes special benefits to any organizations or interests, including state parties, would have to rest on more certainty about the effects.

The question raised by this analysis is whether the reform that La Raja and Rauch argued for needs to be based on more than the evidence that the costs of current regulation manifestly exceed the benefits.  The Brookings authors report that the legal restrictions parties struggle with seem to make little sense.  The rules tax or prevent cooperation with candidates and limit the parties’ capacity to issue broad appeals to the public to support the whole ticket.  McCain-Feingold introduced these complications to keep the state parties from becoming pass-throughs for “soft money”.  It “federalized” in key respects their finances, on a theory that they would otherwise become tools for federal-level corruption.  This case for regulation was overstated then, and given the deep worries about ongoing corruption in American campaign finance, the yield on this effort seems to have been slim.  There is ample reason to reconsider, revise and, in some cases, repeal the rules.

Going beyond this and giving state parties special regulatory dispensation because these organizations are “important nodes of the political equivalent of civil society” and have “untapped potential to reduce long-term polarization and extremism,” adds a complexity to the case for deregulation that is certain to be controversial.  And it is also unnecessary.  It is enough to show that the regulation criticized by La Raja and Rauch is clumsy, ineffective and counterproductive.

On this point of regulatory malfunction, the report offers an interesting perspective on how the law’s effects might be measured, and it is a point of more general application.  Many prominent and informed observers take the view—and it is perhaps the dominant view– that the law does not work, the FEC does not enforce it, and the problem of money in politics has grown worse. Yet it can be true at the same time, as the Brookings report suggests, that the law still has bite.  The state parties report that the rules impose significant compliance burdens and costs and prevent them from conducting legitimate, desirable activities. In sum: the burden of compliance with little of substance to show for it: the worst of all worlds.

Leave a Reply