Reform Initiatives Moved by “Reward and Punishment”

March 27, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

A wing of the progressive reform movement, frustrated with other strategies, is turning to the carrot and the stick.  It program is to use rewards or punishments to exact pledges or other commitments from candidates and officeholders.  It will dangle the prospect of financial support, wield the threat of denied campaign funding, and maybe mete out punishment for resistance by giving money to the opposition.  All of this is described by Derek Willis in a recent New York Times Upshot piece that notes what is long been known – – that voters do not rank campaign finance regulation high among their priorities.  Unable to rely on public opinion or pressure, these reform advocates look to cut a deal with current or prospective legislators, to make them an offer they cannot refuse.

This is a shortcut to their reform goal, and it is bound to run into difficulties.  They would like to force the issue, in effect: win with a political maneuver involving money, having given up on “lengthy efforts” to build a program with bi-partisan support.

A road like this was taken before and it led to McCain-Feingold.   For all the emphasis placed on John McCain’s support (together with that of a limited number of other Republicans), this was mainly a party-line affair and the losers swore that they would fight back, as they did and with considerable success.  Many Democrats were equivocal about key provisions but saw no political way out of support for the reform line.

Now, barely decade later, this reform initiative has been sorely tested, a chunk of it gone from the law while what remains struggles to hold on.  These problems are regularly blamed on the Roberts Court, or on savvy strategies of circumvention, or on a polarized and ideological politics that has crippled the Federal Election Commission.  But equally true is the sheer difficulty of writing and implementing these enactments: there are questions of design, efficacy and constitutionality that cannot be avoided. And for this reason, the reform skeptics’ objections cannot be wished or explained away.

It is assumed that reform opponents have no intention of discussing seriously or in good faith reform measures. And surely there are stout holdouts among them. But it is manifestly incorrect that all of the experts and practitioners found on the Republican, Libertarian or reform-skeptical side are to a person committed to the destruction of all campaign finance reform regulation.  Many hold that regulation must be limited in its goals and careful in its design. Not many among them dismiss the need for any regulation.  At a minimum, a good number understand that the abandonment of all campaign finance controls cannot stand the test of public opinion over the long run and that a no-regulation regime just invites the sort of scandal, or perception of scandal, that stirs Congresses to enact laws they really fear.

A reform program of pressuring politicians with the lure or threat of money dispenses with the work of conducting this conversation.   And it leaves very little to have a conversation about. Its aims are often in cast in the most general terms—an example is a demand for disclosure or candidate disavowal of “dark money”.   What this means is expected to be filled in later, after sweeping commitments have been exacted.  The skeptics won’t trust that this process will produce informed discussion or sound, sustainable rules that balance competing concerns and values.

In fact, the very means employed here work against these possibilities.  The candidate who signs onto a reform program for immediate reward or to avoid punishment has given away much of the chance to define in negotiation and through deliberation what she has signed up for.  The pledge-holder decides whether the pledge has been kept, having paid for the right to judge.  The candidate is indebted.  Standard reform argument has maintained for years that this is not how we should want public policy to be made.

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