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.”