Archive for the 'political equality' Category

To the extent that large contributions are given to secure a political quid pro quo from current and potential office holders, the integrity of our system of representative democracy is undermined. Although the scope of such pernicious practices can never be reliably ascertained, the deeply disturbing examples surfacing after the 1972 election demonstrate that the problem is not an illusory one. 

Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S 1, 27.  

This was the magnitude of the conclusion that the Supreme Court drew about the prevalence or appearance of corruption when it upheld the contribution limitations of the Federal Election Campaign Act. The corruption problem was “not… illusory” but its scope could ‘never’ be pinned down.  The Court then cited to the decision of the court below that had offered a few example of pernicious behavior with campaign funds in the 1972 presidential election. That was enough.

In the years following, enough has not proven to be as good as a feast.  And in search of the feast, anyone with a point to make about the campaign finance laws has been pursuing conclusive data to support it.  Corruption, or the absence of corruption, or the different definitions and measures of corruption, have all occasioned argument about the evidence, as has the related but different project of proving the “appearance” of corruption.  Argument about the evidence has yet to be settled and there's every reason to believe that they never will be.

The related but still distinguishable argument about political inequality has meant the same search for clinching proof that policy follows money and makes for a “rigged” system.  This week, the Center for Competitive Politics took after a widely reported paper about the correlation between the aspirations of the wealthy and the manufacture of public policy.  Noting that Rick Hasen and Larry Lessig had made use of the paper in arguing for a political equality theory of regulation, the CCP cited to critics of the scholarship and its conclusions.  In this critical view, which CCP evidently favors, there is substantial agreement across income groups about policy.  So the study that purportedly shows that we have a democracy of the rich cannot survive close scrutiny. CCP suggests that this should bring sharply into question the “lofty solutions” of reformers.

Louisiana is arguing with the help of the indefatigable Jim Bopp that McCain-Feingold cannot limit “federal election activities”, such as GOTV and voter registration, that state and local parties conduct independently, without coordinating with their candidates. Democracy 21, the Campaign Legal Center and Public Citizen reply in a brief filed as amici that this claim is clearly foreclosed by existing precedent: the soft money limits on state parties under McCain-Feingold are contribution limits, not spending limits, and there is no protection gained from claiming to conduct independently the activities paid with these contributions.

The litigating team representing these leading reform organizations is top-notch, and so it is not a surprise in reading their brief that they do a fine job with the materials at hand. But one also sees that there is a problem—not with the advocacy, but with the state of the law.

Justice Scalia and Campaign Finance: A Puzzle (Part II)

February 23, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

How did Justice Scalia come to write a dissent as he did in McIntrye, insisting on the role of disclosure and relying for the power of his point on the need to follow the judgment of legislators in protecting or enhancing the electoral process?  The question this raises is not whether Scalia was or was not a conservative on this issue, but what kind of conservative he was. As it happens, the explanation also sheds light on the recent history of campaign finance reform and the Court’s response.  The emphasis here is on “response”, for the Court—and Justice Scalia—responded to developments in the law, and in political practice, from Buckley onward, and his position may be fully understandable only within this context.

One day there may be personal papers and other accounts not available today that will fill out our understanding of Justice’s Scalia’s thinking, but in the meantime, the best sources are what he wrote and said, and most of all, what he chose to write, as Justice, in opinions, concurrences and dissents.  It has to be granted at the outset that he addressed the issue outside these opinions, and perhaps inevitably on these occasions, in interview or casual comment, he himself oversimplified.  He would say “the more speech, the better,” provided that the audience could know who was paying for it.  This would give observers reason to imagine that he was a “free speech” absolutist.

As Robert Mutch reminds us in his comprehensive history of campaign finance reform, there were such absolutists on the attack against the Watergate reforms from the very beginning. Buying the Vote: A History of Campaign Finance Reform 140-143 (2014). They gave disclosure some room, but they were otherwise firmly against the other elements of the law in place today, which means contribution as well as expenditure limits.  Mutch argues that they needed a fresh hand to play in this game, and it was constructed out of what he takes to be novel claims of “free speech”—to restrict the use of money in politics was tantamount to restricting speech.  They disdained any rationale for these restrictions, the corruption rationale as well as (and perhaps especially) another grounded in considerations of “equality.” They brought the case known as Buckley on this ground, and, the Court having split the difference—money was speech in some but not in all ways-- they were not happy with the outcome.

Early in his tenure on the Court, however, Justice Scalia declared that “Buckley should not be overruled, because it was entirely correct.” Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 494 U.S. 652, 683 (1990) (Scalia, J., dissenting).  He was primarily concerned to defend the “express advocacy” line that Buckley had drawn around independent expenditures, but he was satisfied that the Court had properly upheld contribution limits as measures targeted at the “plain” risk of corruption:

Certain uses of "massive wealth" in the electoral process – – whether or not the wealth is the result of "special advantages" conferred by the State – – pose a substantial risk of corruption which constitutes a compelling need for the regulation of speech. Such a risk plainly exists when the wealth is given directly to the political candidate, to be used under his direction and control.
Id. at 682.  The Justice also did not then question, nor at any time later, the value of disclosure, which the Buckley also sustained on the strength of the anti-corruption interest.  So overall, Scalia thought Buckley had gotten it right, establishing the express advocacy line which it had “set in concrete on a calm day”, Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life, 551 U.S. 449, 499 (2007)(Scalia, J., concurring), while allowing for limits-- but only to address the risks of corruption, not on the basis of an “equality” rationale.

Super PACs and Concerns about Political Equality

February 12, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

This is the main point urged on the reader in this paper on Super PACs: they're unlikely to disappear, because they are product of the logic of Buckley rather than a distortion of it.  Without a major change in the constitutional law, it is difficult to see how significant limits on Super PACs can be legislated or brought about by regulatory fiat.  Moreover, the “anti-coordination” rules that many are calling for would entangle and damage political organizations other than super PACs and raise legitimate, serious free speech and association issues.

At the same time, there is room for reform--some adjustment to the regulatory process--that would account for the Super PACs’ emergence and widening impact.  Transparency measures can clearly identify for the public those single-candidate Super PACs operating with the candidate’s active support and involvement.  Additional resources could be made available to other actors--parties and others--that are now more regulated than Super PACs and, and in part for that reason, steadily losing ground to them. The goal would not be a deregulated campaign finance system but one that is more rationally structured and coherent.

Rick Hasen worries that the “cure may be worse than the disease.”  He is suspicious or concerned that this is a move to restore the soft-money days that McCain-Feingold was supposed to close out.  But the proposal is not inspired by special solicitude for parties.  Parties are one of a number of electorally active organizations that would benefit from an infusion of resources but there is no case for making them the only ones.  Targeted regulatory relief should be available for other membership-based organizations, and even to candidates when conducting particular voter mobilization activities.

What Rick and others overlook, minimize, or dispute is the role of reinvigorated associational activity in enhancing political equality--in advancing the goal of "the quality of inputs" that Rick champions.  In his very good book, Plutocrats United, Rick does not grapple with the dependence of political equality on organizing and other means of building political strength on numbers, particularly among the very population of citizens he is most concerned with: those with modest resources.  As Guy-Uriel Charles has summed up the significance of association, its “main principle…is that of effective aggregation: an individual must have a reasonable opportunity to join with like-minded others for the purpose of acquiring political power.”  Guy-Uriel E. Charles, Racial Identity, Electoral Structures, and the First Amendment Right of Association, 91 Cal. L. Rev. 1209, 1248-1249 (2003).

Claims about Corruption in the Case for Political Equality

February 5, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

One prominent scholar recently suggested on the election law listserv that the poor returns on Jeb Bush’s campaign spending tell us something about how unreliably money “talks” in elections.  Another prominent scholar replied, saying that this remark "completely missed the point” about the power of money in politics.

As the presidential election year moves along, it is natural for the debate to crank up over whether assumptions about money and politics, particularly in the era of Super PACs, have proven to be facile.  Among the various, conflicting views are those that surfaced in this list serv exchange.  The position dismissed as completely simplistic holds that money has been shown to be a weak factor in competitive elections.  The other, opposing view counters that the role of money in politics, while highly significant, has to be more discriminately analyzed, in more nuanced fashion.

The nuanced theory avoids some of the problems of overstatement but falls potentially into the risk of being both highly nuanced in its content and yet rhetorically bold in its presentation.  The argument takes various forms, but one is found in an article Rick Hasen wrote not too long ago in The Washington Post, entitled "Money Can't Buy Jeb Bush the White House, but It Still Skews Politics."  There, Hasen argues, that money is “key,” but when it is key, and how, all depends on the circumstances.  In high salience presidential campaigns its effects might be less powerful than in elections down the ballot, where interest is less intense and voters more weakly informed. Its effect, where it has one, is a “skew”, and it may be "subtler” in impact than reformers claim, but it is “equally pernicious” in advancing the interests of donor class.

There is a shift here to more careful claims about what money buys and when: that it counts for more in some races than in others; that it is not all that effective if the candidate is a “bad product”; that money’s effects are more of a “skew” than a power play; and that those effects are not always all that obvious unless you look closely.  But there is little change in the statement of campaign money’s impact: it is large, pernicious and pervasive, and it accounts for “the rise of a plutocratic class capturing private benefits for personal gain.”

Now this position may sound like the long-standing corruption argument now having to straddle the line between its empirical and moral foundations—having to concede after all this time the complexity of money’s effects while insisting that the corruption remains as bad as ever.  But Rick is not an anti-corruption theorist of the old school.  He is arguing for campaign finance regulation as an antidote to extreme political inequality, a position forcefully and skillfully laid out in his new book, Plutocrats United.

This argument based on considerations of political equality can gain force from a “skew” resulting from superior resources.  But it is not dependent on it. And it also does not require claims about the extent, significance or political bias of the “skew.”