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By Jay Cost

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Campaign Finance Reform and the Political Party: A Response to Bradley Smith, Part 1

This week, Bradley Smith of the Center for Competitive Politics offered an interesting and thoughtful response to a recent essay I wrote on the role of soft money in politics. Regular readers will recall that Mr. Smith - who is the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission - wrote an article for City Journal to which my essay was a response. The source of our disagreement is the role that soft money should play in national politics - I have a more restrictive vision for its role than Mr. Smith. His most recent essay is a response to my explication of my position.

I'd like to continue the discussion with the following considerations.

I am going to try to avoid the kind of format - where I quote him at length and then respond - that I imagine will bore readers who have neither the time nor the interest to follow in that kind of detail. I do have some back-and-forth comments to make. I have attached these as an appendix to this essay. My hope is that, even if you have not read (nor plan to read) my original essay or Mr. Smith's response to it, you will still derive some value from the following amplification of my position.

A much needed one at that. In the wake of Mr. Smith's article, I carefully reviewed my original essay - and I must say that it does not do a very good job of reflecting my views. And so, I think that Mr. Smith's criticisms are - in many instances - quite valid. I should have been more precise. Mr. Smith calls upon me to state a "detailed position." This is an entirely reasonable request - and that I did not provide a position was my principal failing in my original article - and so I am happy to oblige here. The issue that divides us is the role that "soft money" should play in politics - while the role I have in mind is more expansive than the role he seems to think I have in mind (for that, see the appendix!), my preference is that political parties not have access to what came to be known as "soft money." To justify this fully will require, I think, a careful statement of my opinions on campaign finance - which I have been able to develop with some thoroughness over the years thanks to my study of the parties.

I am going to spread my response over three days. Today and tomorrow, I shall offer a philosophical sketch of what I would like to see from a campaign finance regime. Friday I shall explain why I object to the role of soft money in the political party.

A final note to readers: I apologize for my absence from blogging on Tuesday. A power outage thwarted my attempts to work on this piece on Monday. Work on this piece took up most of my Tuesday - hence, no time for blogging. I thought it best to make this my priority. After all, when the former chair of the FEC asks you to clarify your opinion, you best put that at the top of your agenda!

***

Fundamentally, I think that we must remember that campaign finance is not, strictly speaking, an issue solely regarding speech rights, although this is important. It is also about: how do we design an electoral system that maximizes democratic accountability, i.e. enables the public to use the franchise to influence the actions of the government as much as possible? Now, you are not going to hear old, tired arguments from me that we have to make choices between the two. As far as I am concerned, speech is a necessary condition of accountability. The more we limit speech, the more we prevent voices from being heard, the less accountability our democratic process will create.

However, we must be careful here. We must recognize that speech rights - even though they are a necessary condition of democratic accountability - are not a sufficient condition. In other words, if we fail to maximize speech rights, we will not have an accountable electoral system. On the other hand, we might maximize speech rights and still not have an accountable system.

I think that the two laws that have governed the last thirty odd years of federal elections - the Federal Elections Campaign Act (FECA) and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) - are miserable failures in protecting either principle, and that modifying the BCRA to protect speech is insufficient for protecting accountability.

In other words, my position is that the FECA (as amended in 1974) is a bad law that has wrought a bad result. The major problem with adjustments to it - be they FECA amendments, Court rulings, or the BCRA - is that they have only been tinkering at the margins with this misguided and wholly unsuccessful law that not only stultifies our attempts to achieve accountability, but also misunderstands a basic fact of American political life. If I had my way, the FECA would be scrapped altogether - and we would start from scratch with a sober understanding of how politics in our country actually works.

What do the FECA and its successors misunderstand? The inevitable, and potentially beneficial, role of the political party in our electoral process. Let us examine the potential benefits before we look at the inevitability.

E.E. Schattschneider, in his seminal Party Government, argues that the role of the public in our process is necessary, but limited. The public has a vocabulary of only two words - "yes" and "no" - and it can only speak when spoken to. We maximize the effectiveness of the public's voice - and therefore maximize the extent to which public officials are held accountable by it - when we ask the public tightly-defined and socially-relevant questions. That is, the public exercises maximum control over governmental officials when, (a) there are clear, relevant issues at stake in an election, and (b) one candidate clearly represents one set of issues and another candidate clearly represents another set. In such an election, the public choice indicates a clear preference among policy alternatives - and thus a governmental mandate.

What Schattschneider is implying is that the public does not have the capacity to frame the election or to set the agenda. It cannot establish a contest over clearly-espoused and relevant issue positions. Who has that capacity? Historically, that role has fallen upon the political party - without which, Schattschneider rightly argues, American democracy would be unthinkable. Indeed, the party is so important to our system that our Founders began their civic careers as anti-party men, but eventually came to found the first parties!

It is strange to think of elections being framed - however, they are. Ask yourself why American elections hinge on certain issues and not others. The answer is that a set of individuals has chosen the particular frame. Theoretically speaking, the divisions between candidates in a campaign could be over almost any issue. The issues over which a campaign is actually waged have been determined by some entity or entities other than the electorate. Traditionally, this entity has been the party. The party has chosen the scope of political conflict.

Even though party control over the debate has sometimes limited democratic accountability, the party remains our best chance to maximize this accountability. Why? It is because, when the party frames an election coherently and relevantly, we can achieve something akin to responsible party government, which is a set of maxims that describe a normative ideal:

1. The political party takes clear issue positions for the purpose of the electoral campaign. Candidates who hold a certain party label are known to hold these issue positions by virtue of their association with that party.
2. The party - upon attaining control of the government - endeavors to enact its policy program.
3. In the subsequent election, the party is evaluated by (a) the extent to which it was successful in its enactment, and (b) the extent to which the enactment was beneficial.
The value of this is that it can offer governmental officials clear mandates from the public. If we define very plainly the set of positions the Democrats hold and the set of positions the Republicans hold, and both parties campaign explicitly on those issues - the winning party can head into office with a mandate to act. In other words, the more clearly we frame the issues, the more intelligible the public response will be, and the more influential that response becomes. On the other hand, when issues are not clearly defined - when candidates "run to the center," they run on issues that will not be of importance in the next government, or they run on personal qualities that have little bearing on the course of government - the vote of the public has very little influence over what happens in the next governing session. After all, they are being asked to weigh in on irrelevant or obscure matters - how can such judgments affect the course of future policy?

It should be clear that the political party is the only agent in our country with the capacity to accomplish any semblance of this coherence. What is required for the responsible party government model is for candidates of the same party to take uniform issue positions. Because elections in our system are geographically diverse, and the election of one candidate does not necessarily imply the election of another, we should not expect candidates to evidence this kind of coordination spontaneously. Thus, we are in need of some kind of centralized force that influences them to coordinate. We need an agent to coordinate and manage, at least to an extent, elections all across the country. Hence, the centrality of the political party to democratic accountability: the party is the only agent with the resources for and the interests in such a task.

Unfortunately, the FECA - and, because it retained the FECA's basic philosophical orientation, the BCRA as well - moved us further from this ideal. Both laws are anti-party. Both treat the party as part of the problem - whereas in the responsible party government model, they are the solution. The FECA and the BCRA tightly, even punitively, constrict the party's ability to coordinate campaign messages among its candidates in different electoral contests. Specifically, the contribution and coordinated expenditure limits placed upon the party prevent it from undertaking the task asked of it in the responsible party government model.

What do we have instead? We have a system in which local candidates are in control of local elections. The party plays only a modest role in inducing a national campaign from the 470 or so congressional campaigns waged every two years. Beyond this small nationalizing influence, the congressional election is quite local. This may sound all well and good - but consider the result. Party candidates run campaigns not based upon a unified, coherent political message that binds one party candidate to another, and that - if accepted by the public - would be justification for governmental action. Instead, they run campaigns designed simply to maximize the chances of individual victory. Thus, without clear and relevant contrasts between the parties - the electorate is not able to render a coherent judgment about either the recent actions of government, or about what should happen next. Party candidates win (or lose) not because of a discrete set of issues of national scope and salience, but rather based upon whether they can frame the local debate in a way that benefits them the most. Accordingly, they develop moderate issue positions, exploit issues that are of little salience to the nation, exploit the "personal vote" to achieve election, or make excessive use of the pork barrel, etc. The result is a government that has no mandate from the public - and, conversely, a public that exercises only little control over the government.

Many factors in what I like to call the political economy of the electoral campaign have induced this outcome. However, a major factor has been the FECA followed by the BCRA - both of them have, as I said, punitively limited the extent to which the party can influence party candidates. The campaign finance regimes of the last thirty years have prevented the party from producing from its diverse candidates a unified, coherent, and clear political message that the public may evaluate and select if it so chooses. In so doing, this regime has diminished the influence of the public in whatever actions the government decides to adopt or not adopt. A weakened party means weakened democratic accountability.

As I said, an engaged party is not only potentially beneficial - it is inevitable. What do I mean by this? I mean that the party is naturally inclined to be involved in the campaign for office. An understanding of the natural inclination of the party helps us to understand the failures of our current campaign finance regime, and points us toward a regime that more closely resembles the ideal of responsible party government. I shall thus continue the discussion tomorrow with this point.

The appendix follows.

***

Appendix

As I indicated, I need to engage Mr. Smith on a few points that might not be of relevance to all readers. I believe that the best place to do this is in an appendix such as this.

First, I must correct a mischaracterization that Mr. Smith has (unintentionally, I am sure) made of my original essay. The original was, sadly, ambiguous, but it was not completely ambiguous. And Mr. Smith does not offer an entirely accurate summation of my views as I had expressed them.

He writes:

Cost's expressed concern...is with "soft money," which Cost believes should be regulated. What was disappointing to us was not so much Cost's view on regulating soft money as his justification for these views.
In point of fact, my position regarded soft money contributions to the political party. I wrote:
I count soft money contributions to the political parties as one such instance where the government should be involved.
I see a major distinction between the different uses of soft money. I have no objection to the kind of soft money issue advocacy that, say, Wisconsin Right to Life was conducting. This distinction will be relevant as we progress. It is also relevant to Mr. Smith's essay, which sometimes reads as though he is attacking a straw man. Indeed, I did a poor job of explaining why I would regulate soft money to the political party - and he is right to criticize me. However, he seems to criticize me for positions on which he and I agree - namely, the use of soft money for programs like those conducted by Wisconsin Right to Life.

Mr. Smith also implies that my thinking on this matter has been sloppy. Given the ambiguities of my initial piece, I can appreciate his opinion on that! However, in support of this view, he makes an argument that is not, I think, entirely fair to yours truly. Mr. Smith argues the following:

Cost writes, "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.'" Whoa! In the entire soft money era, there was not a single corporation or union that made $50 million in soft money contributions - not just in any election, but over the entire 23 year period.
I would agree with Mr. Smith that I was indeed engaging in what he goes on to call "hyperbole." However, I do not think that this is necessarily a bad thing. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "hyperbole" thusly:
A figure of speech consisting in exaggerated or extravagant statement, used to express strong feeling or produce a strong impression, and not intended to be understood literally.
I was indeed being hyperbolic, i.e. offering an intentionally, obviously exaggerated figure to make a rhetorical point (this is why I chose such a large figure). The problem with hyperbole is when it is not, strictly speaking, hyperbolic - when exaggerated claims are not obviously exaggerated, and thus used for a purpose other than making a rhetorical point. My statement was hyperbolic, it was an obvious and intentional overstatement, which is why Mr. Smith should not have called it "sloppy" or "misleading" - which is what he goes on to do.

-Jay Cost