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By Jay Cost

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Campaign Finance Reform and Political Power

Former Federal Election Commission Chair Bradley A. Smith had an interesting article in City Journal, which makes a libertarian-esque case against campaign finance reform. In it, he makes the following argument:

Reformers...claim that reform gets rid of the political corruption that supposedly follows from large campaign contributions. Yet study after study shows that contributions play little or no role in how politicians vote. One of the most comprehensive, conducted by a group of MIT scholars in 2004, concluded that "indicators of party, ideology and district preferences account for most of the systematic variation in legislators' roll call voting behavior." The studies comport with common sense. Most politicians enter the public arena because they hold strong beliefs on public policy. Truly corrupt pols--the Duke Cunninghams of the world--want illegal bribes, not campaign donations.

As far as I know, all of the facts in this quotation are absolutely true. I have never seen any systematic evidence to indicate that contributions influence "roll call votes." However, is this the only way influence can be acquired?

Absolutely not!

In fact, if we look away from the congressional floor, and look instead to the committee level - we see something quite different. What we see are moneyed interests buying involvement, not votes. Moneyed interests spend resources to induce legislators to think positively about the issues they want them thinking positively about. In other words, moneyed interests exercise what I have, on this site, called the second mode of power. They help set the agenda. This is the argument of Richard Hall and Frank Wayman in their seminal article in The American Political Science Review called, "Buying Time: Moneyed Interests and the Mobilization of Bias in Congressional Committees." After testing their hypothesis, they conclude:

[W]e found solid support for our principal hypothesis: moneyed interests are able to mobilize legislators already predisposed to support the group's position. Conversely, money that a group contributions to its likely opponent has either a negligible or negative effect on their participation. While previous research on these same issues provided little evidence that PAC money purchased members' votes, it apparently did buy marginal time, energy, and legislative resources that committee participation requires. Moreoever, we found evidence that (organized) producer interests figured more prominently than (unorganized) consumer interests in the participation decisions of House committee members - both for a case in which the issue at stake evoked high district salience and one where it did not.

We should expect something akin to this. After all, if special interest money does not acquire special interests anything at all - why would they contribute so much? In other words, a rational view of interests groups induces us to expect that they get something from their contributions.

This is why the issue of campaign finance reform is not purely a First Amendment issue. Smith calls campaign finance reform a "war on political freedom." In some instances, I would agree with that. But, one such area in which you will find me in staunch disagreement is the issue of soft money. If AT&T and Coca-Cola could write $50 million checks and pay for each party's political conventions - as they could before the BCRA (the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, a.k.a. McCain-Feingold) - it seems to me that the overall effect is one that thwarts "political freedom." If these entities are "buying time," to what extent is the government not conducting the people's business, and thus to what extent do the people actually control the actions of the government?

Money dedicated to the purpose of electioneering is money that, if restricted, limits political freedom. On this, I do not think Smith and I would disagree. However, these large soft money checks were not dedicated to electioneering. These large corporations did not give this money so that the public could hear their views, or their favored politicians' views, in the public forum. Rather, they gave large quantities of money to both parties so as to avoid their issues being considered in the public forum. This undermines the very nature of our democratic process.

And so we see the bottom line. Smith offers several anecdotal examples of the outrages of campaign finance reform. And, believe you me, I am sympathetic to all of them. Quite frankly, I think the basic premises of the Federal Elections Campaign Act (the FECA, which the BCRA replaced in 2004) are philosophically misguided and socially detrimental. It is a bad law, and - by accepting the FECA's basic view of how campaign finance should be regulated - BCRA made things worse. [Personally, I think campaign finance reform should - though it never has - promote what scholars have called responsible party government.] Nevertheless, it is just true that there are some campaign financing activities that can and do undermine our political process. In those instances, the government can and should regulate it.

I count soft money contributions to the political parties as one such instance where the government should be involved.

-Jay Cost