If the uses of campaign finance rules to battle undue influence or its appearance will remain perpetually bogged down in disagreement – – particularly over whether the benefits of regulation justify the cost – – it does not follow that money in politics as a question for public policy has run its course. The question may have been overemphasized as one of corruption of the governmental process: corruption of the electoral process is also increasingly a concern, if less clearly and distinctly articulated. Critics of the condition of campaigns cite a range of problems with them, most recently and with rising alarm the candidates’ and parties’ loss of control to “outside groups” —Super PACs and (c) organizations—that operate under a different set of rules.

An astute piece by Mark Schmitt refocuses the argument on that point—the role of money in distorting the operation of the electoral process. He singles out for attention how a select community of donors influence the selection of candidates and the presentation of issues, raising questions of accountability and of the quality of voter engagement. This perspective has major implications for reform programs.

Schmitt opens his critique with an objection to the suggestion that money decided the 2014 elections. He believes that the two parties were competitive in finances. Money still cast a shadow on the campaigns, elevating the role of the large donors who fund Super PACs and (c) organizations and who are mostly unknown to the voters. These donors intervened decisively in the primaries and in the issues that would be emphasized to the electorate. They also had a hand, he believes, in excessive spending on television and inadequate commitment of funds to ground-level organizing. Candidates and parties were left in supporting, not leading, roles.

This analysis is not persuasive or fully established in every particular. For example, Schmitt acknowledges that if money drives attention to certain issues over others, its success in this regard is mixed. Tom Steyer could not break through on climate change, nor could Larry Lessig on campaign finance reform. It is also not clear that donor preference accounts for overuse of televised advertising.

But Schmitt’s main point about the shift of money out of the party system to the “groups” holds up well on the facts, and most important, he relates this development to an impoverished campaign rather than the corruption of government. (Of course, a campaign dominated by money from these sources can still keep anxiety very much alive about “corruption,” in the sense that certain issues may be kept off of, or dropped low on, the policy agenda. Schmitt writes that “there is no Tom Steyer of the minimum wage, or of progressive tax policy.”)

Schmitt proposes that we dispense with programs to reduce the amount of money spent and pay attention instead to giving “candidates and parties more of a voice, and to break up the large blocs of money, controlled by unknown operatives, that now dominate the system.” There are two proposals here—one to strengthen parties and the other to weaken “outside groups” —and only the former offering relief to parties stands much chance of being taken up without the usual divisiveness and constitutional difficulty.

It is a good start, however, and even if expectations of any reform measure should be modest, it addresses problems in the conduct of campaigns that might have wide support, and certainly more support than most of the proposed restrictions intended to counter “undue” influence” or “corruption.” Not many will scramble to defend the proposition that political campaigns should be shaped by concentrated wealth, with campaigns and candidates struggling to retain their grip on the choice of candidates and of message. There may also be bi-partisan support reforms for “shifting control back to parties and candidates,” as Schmitt calls for it, if the shift is achieved by a policy of expanding, not limiting, resources for politics, such as increasing the capacity of parties and candidates to fund the “creative mobilization” of voters.

Adjusting campaign finance policy to address issues in campaigns does not imply or require a giving up on reasonable measures to control “influence.” It re-directs that effort more to lobbying laws and other regulation, such as “revolving door” limits, outside the sphere of campaign funding. Campaign finance law will continue to plays its part: Buckley still rules the land and allows for contribution limits and disclosure requirements.

But these rules cannot bear the full weight placed on them in a program to contain “influence” over the way government runs. How they affect the way campaigns are run is an increasingly pressing question, and Mark Schmitt has helped to bring attention to it.

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