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By Jay Cost

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Campaign Finance Reform and the Political Party, Part 3

In Tuesday's installment of this essay, I argued that the involvement of the political party in our electoral process is a potentially beneficial feature of our politics - and that, because our campaign finance laws treat the party as an enemy, rather than an ally, of good government, they fail to make use of them. In Wednesday's installment, I argued that the involvement of the political party in our election process is inevitable, and because our campaign finance laws ignore this fact and foolishly try to squelch the involvement of the party, they end up producing unwanted and inefficient results. I went on to sketch a brief four-point campaign finance law that I would support over the Federal Elections Campaign Act (FECA) or the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA).

Today, I would like to explain why I have no soft money contributions to the political party in my scheme. First off, let me specify exactly what I mean. As Mr. Smith rightly notes, soft money is simply money not limited by the "hard" law of the FECA. And so, when I say that I would have no soft money to the party or the candidate, what I mean is that I would limit the amount that any group or individual could give to a party. It is my preference for this limitation that induces me to oppose the kind of soft money giving to the party that characterized the end of the FECA regime - in which individuals, unions, and corporations would give six-to-seven figure amounts to party units.

On Tuesday I argued that the involvement of the party in elections is potentially beneficial. And yesterday I argued that it was inevitable. The implication from these two points is that the party is not necessarily going to act in a way to induce what I have been calling responsible party government. The party does not have a compelling interest in responsible party government. Rather, it has a compelling interest in electoral victory - and it is this interest that can be molded, by institutions like campaign finance laws, into a foundation for responsible party government.

Only once - so far as I know - has a successful reform movement made conscious and explicit use of the democratizing power of the political party, and this was the Democratic reform of Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren. [N.B. You can always identify a professional student of the political parties by where he places Martin van Buren - the founder of the first mass American political party - in his ordering of American presidents. He's in my top ten!]

For long stretches of our nation's history, this natural inclination of the party to be involved yielded bad results. In the age of the political machine - which can be dated broadly from 1865 to 1932 - the government failed to induce parties to act responsibly. Instead, party involvement meant patronage, plutocratic control over nominations, local elections that only rarely concerned the major problems of the day, and uninspiring and unworthy political leaders.

So, we cannot be Pollyannaish about the role of the party. The party is a potential ally of good democratic governance - but we must remember that this is not because the party shares our interest in it. It is, rather, because the interest of the party - to win elections - can be used for our interest of good governance. Accordingly, we must be mindful of the laws that govern party behavior because bad laws might, just like the FECA and the BCRA, thwart our objective of obtaining democratic accountability.

Thus, I would limit contributions to the party. It is one such rule in a package of reforms to induce the party to compete responsibly. My logic for that position is as follows.

The party's principal goal is electoral victory. In the political economy of today's electoral campaign, victory at the ballot box requires television advertising, which in turn requires money. And so, in pursuit of its quest for electoral victory, the political party is in pursuit of money.

I argued on Tuesday that one of the powers of the party is to set the political agenda, to frame the debate of the campaign. This is the lynchpin of responsible party government - the party establishes this agenda in a way that is salient, relevant, and unambiguous such that voters have clear choices over vital issues on Election Day. I have argued here that we should not expect the party to do this spontaneously. The party's interest is not in democratic accountability, it is in electoral victory.

Meanwhile, empirical evidence - which I referenced in my original article - has shown that contributions to politicians do not buy votes. Rather, they buy time - that is, they help set the agenda: politicians receive money from PACs, and in response they think a little longer and a little harder about the issues the PACs want them thinking about.

Thus, the concern with unlimited contributions to the party is that they might induce it to set the agenda in a way that is irresponsible. In other words, the party's need for money might influence it to accept large contributions and, in return, alter its campaign agenda to satisfy the donor at the expense of the electorate's interest in clear contrasts on vital issues. So, for instance, I would have a problem with a large contribution to a party from a telecommunications firm. As a highly dissatisfied, nay disgruntled, cell phone user, I think that telecommunications reform is badly needed. Americans as a whole might very well feel similarly. The only way our democratic institutions could induce our governmental institutions to take action is if the party places telecommunications reform on the electoral agenda. A large contribution from a telecommunications firm could very well induce it to keep it off the agenda. Might the party do this? Absolutely. Remember, its interest is in electoral victory - not maximum democratic accountability. If it wagered that the money from the firm was worth more to its electoral goal than the issue of telecommunications reform being party of its campaign pitch, it would be rational for the party to accept the money and take the issue off the agenda.

This is why I am particularly concerned about large contributions by entities to both the Republicans and the Democrats. A contribution to one induces one to keep it from its agenda. The other might still be induced to place it on its agenda - indeed, it may be more induced, as it can now make an issue out of the contribution. However, a contribution to both could induce both to keep an issue off the agenda of both - thus effectively silencing the public on the matter.

This is the point that I was trying to make in my original essay. Democratic government is simply unthinkable without the political party. The party places, or does not place, items on the agenda of the public, whose response is limited to a simple "Yes" or a simple "No." If the party is influenced not to place a certain item on the agenda, then the public will necessarily have no say on what the government does on that matter. We might think of the party as the translator of the public. Its voice is unintelligible to governmental officials without the help of the party. What happens to a foreign speaker if his translator has been paid by a third party not to translate his opinion regarding certain matters? He loses the ability to communicate on those matters. He has lost his voice to the third party, who has "bought" his translator.

So, I think we must limit party contributions. These contributions could buy for an individual or a group what no private person or group has a right to buy - namely, the ability to set the national agenda. We need to make contribution allowance limits large enough to reduce the pressure on the party to find the resources that are necessary to compete. However, we need to limit them so that individuals and groups who contribute to a party are doing so because they agree with that party's issue proposals, not because they want to direct what the party places before the public for consideration. If private groups wish to place an item before the public - or to take an item off the public agenda - let them engage in electioneering, let them participate in the marketplace of ideas that is the political campaign. I would place no limits on that, provided that consumers of their ideas can clearly identify the source behind them. It is only the party that I would prevent from being able to take unlimited funds from a single entity.

Philosophically, this distinction between the party and other political actors rests upon the recognition that the political party plays a unique role in our society. No other entity is in a position to set the political agenda as the party is. The party is not merely another political action committee. We need to recognize that the political party is a private and public institution. It is a private institution in many respects (Pat Leahy would be little-girl-giddy if the FOIA applied to internal RNC communications!), but, in its control over the national agenda, it nevertheless serves a vital public function. We must recognize that it does, and we must work to encourage it to serve this function as well as it is able.

What else might induce responsible agenda-setting? One way to influence the party to set the agenda responsibly is to engender robust competition for as many elections as possible. This will activate and energize the voters, making them think more closely and carefully about politics. An activated and energized electorate means one that is thinking about its problems, and how political solutions might ameliorate them. This induces the party to craft relevant issue positions. My intuition is that ending the limits to party contributions to candidates would have this effect. Currently, the party is only able to contribute without limits if the expenditures are "independent," which essentially implies television advertising. This, in turn, means that candidates are on their own in developing the organizational sophistication sufficient to make them competitive. It is only when a candidate has made himself competitive that the party will begin to participate in the campaign. It can do only a small amount to help the candidate become competitive. It cannot, for instance, give the candidate the cash to hire a fundraising specialist. If we eliminate the caps on party contributions to candidates - my intuition is that the party will use its newly found freedom to "seed" more competitive candidates by helping them acquire the kinds of capacities that a winning candidate needs. This, in turn, will probably influence more dynamic and better-qualified individuals to campaign for office.

Overall, this would make for better-run campaigns and thus more competitive electoral contests. Who doesn't want that? Incumbents, of course! The legislators who have imposed these "reforms" upon us don't want that. As a matter of fact, they are just about the only losers in a more competitive electoral system. This, incidentally, is another, not-so-coincidental failure of the FECA and the BCRA - by limiting the role of the party in the campaign, they have made our elections generally less competitive. They thus benefit current officeholders. Bear that in mind next time you hear a sitting member of Congress smugly and condescendingly preach to you about "fixing" the system!

Another way to induce this kind of responsibility is an active and robust party base. If an activated and energized electorate is forcing a party to be relevant, an active and robust party base will prevent the party from taking issue positions that are identical to the competing party's position. That is, a robust base prevents both sides from tacking to the median voter, where there are no clear issue distinctions. Accordingly, I am strongly in favor of reforming the party organization from top-to-bottom. Unfortunately, party organizations today are either antiquated (like the party "clubs" that became popular in the 1950s and 1960s) or elites-only (like the national party units). The party can and should reconstitute itself to be a place for political activists to achieve not just what Edward Banfield and James Q. Wilson call purposive benefits like policy reform, but the solidary benefits that come from being around like-minded folk. In other words, the party base today, for as vital as it is to the electoral prospects of the party, is not-at-all socially integrated into the party organization itself. Staunch Republicans feel a stronger sense of identity by listening to Rush Limbaugh than by going to a local party meeting. Staunch Democrats feel that sense more by participating at DailyKos than by working with the party. It was not always this way; for many years, the party was a social entity. However, the party organization failed to update its organizational structure, and it has since stopped being a social meeting place for the politically active. Restoring the social basis of the party will keep the party honest to its base - it would also probably enliven and invigorate the currently torpid campaign for local and state offices, which would make for better governance from the top of the government to the bottom.

These are just a few examples I have in mind - I mention them to underscore the following point. Inducing the party to set the agenda responsibly requires a whole set of political institutions, none of which constrict the party or party activists, but rather guide their natural tendencies toward a socially beneficial result. Limiting or capping contributions to the party would be part of an overall scheme. The problem with unlimited contributions is that the electoral-driven party might be induced to set the agenda irresponsibly. And, as a responsible setting of the agenda is a public good, we should prevent this from happening. But we should also work generally to revitalize the political party - by doing things like inducing serious competition from the top to the bottom of the ballot, and restoring the party's social function in American political life. These kinds of actions will, I think, move us closer to the ideal of responsible party government - and therefore to an electoral system that does a good job of keeping government officials accountable.

-Jay Cost