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By Jay Cost

« Did I Read This Correctly? | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | Campaign Finance Reform and the Political Party, Part 3 »

Campaign Finance Reform and the Political Party, Part 2

Yesterday, I began my response to Bradley Smith's recent article at the website of his Center for Competitive Politics. My trajectory in this endeavor has been to offer a thorough justification for why I would not allow unlimited "soft" money contributions to the political party. In response to Smith's well-reasoned criticisms of my initial thoughts on the matter, I decided it was only appropriate for me to outline exactly what I would want in a campaign finance regime.

This, in turn, led me yesterday to outline why the role of the political party in the electoral campaign is potentially beneficial. Today, I have two objectives. First, I am going to outline why I think the role of the party is inevitable, and how - because recent campaign finance laws have failed to recognize this fact - we are saddled with so many unintentional and inefficient side-effects. Second, I am going to bring both of these observations - the party is a potentially beneficial and inevitable agent in our electoral process - to bear in the development of a modest set of campaign finance reform proposals. This will pave the way to tomorrow's discussion of why unlimited party contributions are not part of my proposal scheme.

So, I shall begin with a look at the inevitability of the party's role in our elections. My argument here is that, unless you outlaw the party altogether, it is going to search endlessly for ways to maximize its involvement. Eventually, it is going to find ways to be highly involved. And so, campaign reform laws that presume that party involvement can be kept to a minimum are simply foolish.

Why is the party's role inevitable? It is because the party's fortune is wholly and intimately connected to the fortunes of its candidates. E.E. Schattschneider defined the political party as a team whose purpose is to win elections. Thus, the party and its candidates for office are inseparable, which means that the party will always work to find ways to be more and more involved in the campaign of its candidates. The party has an existential stake in American elections. If all party candidates lose, the party itself ceases to exist. Thus, we can and should expect the party not only to participate, but to participate as much as it possibly can. In this way, it is unlike any other political entity - if we allowed the party to do so, it would take complete control over every campaign for political office. In point of fact, this is what it essentially did in the 19th century!

This is why what I have called responsible party government is possible. The party wants to be involved - and it is going to try to involve itself! If we manage the way in which it is involved, rather than try to constrict it, we can achieve an electoral process in which the public is given clear, contrasting positions on the vital issues of the day. Responsible party government is practical because it recognizes and makes use of the natural inclinations of the party.

Unfortunately, because reformers have consistently failed to appreciate fully the inevitability of party activity, their efforts to regulate the party have always produced unintended, and undesirably inefficient, effects. Any scheme to maximize democratic accountability is doomed to fail unless it accounts for, and makes full use of, the political party. In other words, responsible party government is, in my opinion, the only way to achieve democratic accountability in a system that includes political parties. If you try to achieve accountability in a party system without using the party to achieve this result, the party is going to thwart your efforts.

Why? It is because, so long as the party exists, it is going to stick its nose into every election it can. This means that if a law tries to limit its role, the party is going to start searching for "loopholes" in it. Don't think for a moment that it won't find them, either! All laws have loopholes because language is necessarily vague and because lawmakers cannot envision every possible scenario, let alone indicate in the law what should happen in all of them. Barring the use of loopholes, the party can still rely upon that pesky First Amendment to involve itself - freedom of association is an unqualified right that is highly useful for the party. The party can, and has, appealed to the courts, which have accordingly gutted reforms by striking from them elements essential to their central purposes. The result has been, and will always be, that the party thwarts schemes for non-partisan democratic accountability, which proceed to devolve into ridiculously irrational compilations of rules that do nothing except induce inefficiencies that nobody wants.

Thus, you must either eliminate the party (which would require an amendment to the Constitution to rescind the right of free association), or recognize and use the role that it has. The current campaign finance regime does neither - hence the absurdity of the spectacle that it creates every even-numbered year (Including, but not limited to, the liberal bloc on the Supreme Court siding with the government against a small, grass-roots organization like Wisconsin Right to Life! What, pray tell, would Earl Warren think of that?). Our current regime is so ridiculous because its innovators wrongly assumed that the role of the party could be kept to a minimum. It cannot be. Accordingly, the intentions of the whole regime have been completely undermined by the fact that the party has, inevitably, found and made use of loopholes in the law. The result is a system that is entirely inefficient in terms of protecting either principle that we would like an electoral scheme to embody, namely free speech and democratic accountability.

"Independent expenditures" are a perfect illustration of the way in which the current regime - because it fails to recognize, let alone make use of, the reality of the party - takes us further from an ideally accountable system. I can't stand "independent expenditures" - they are an offense to both good sense and democracy. First, the concept of "independence" between a political party and its candidate for the office it wishes to win is nonsensical. The fact that we conceive of the party and its candidates as being independent of each other is a sign that we still - after 200 years - have not grasped exactly what the party is! Second, "independent expenditures" are horribly inefficient if our goal is to maximize democratic accountability. They are an example of maximized speech rights, but minimized accountability. The party is going to spend as much as it can because - like its candidates - it has a compelling, existential interest in electoral victory. The First Amendment guarantees its right to spend this money. Thus, the party can spend money, and we know that it will spend money. Would society not be better off - both from a speech perspective and from an accountability perspective - if we allowed the candidates and the party to coordinate their activities? After all, the party is going to do everything it can to be involved, and party involvement is a good thing because it can yield a contest that maximizes coherence in campaign messages, and therefore democratic accountability. Why should we allow the party to participate as much as it wants, but refuse it the ability to coordinate its efforts with the candidate?

There are all kinds of ridiculous inefficiencies in our system that stem from the fact that reformers have failed to regard the party properly. My favorite is an example discovered by California State University professor Diana Dwyre. Dwyre found that, under the FECA regime, national party organizations experimented with what she called "spinning soft money straw into hard money gold." That is, they began to contribute large sums of soft money to state party units in exchange for hard money contributions to and expenditures for federal candidates. Did state party units keep up their end of the bargain? Oh sure, but not on a 1:1 basis! The state party units would contribute a sum of hard money to candidates, but not the same amount that the national party gave in soft money. They pocketed a not insignificant fee. Thus, our FECA regime turned our state party units into usurers of their own national party!

This is the result of the FECA and the BCRA. The party is left to "exploit loopholes" to do what it is naturally compelled to do. The loopholes are inefficient, and thus the party is not in a position to do what it could and would do in a responsible party government model. In so doing, it undermines the intention of the misconceived laws that were supposed to fix the system. We are left with an electoral system that does not protect political speech as much as it should, and does not maximize the public's ability to exercise democratic control.

Who is the big winner in today's campaign finance scheme? Incumbents! In a system where the party's role is stultified, and the party responds by thwarting the intentions of the system - responsible party government does not exist, and thus clear positioning on relevant issues does not happen. The result is that the public never has an opportunity to evaluate coherently the actions of governmental agents. And so, incumbents can make use of the "personal vote" in their districts - and thus not fret too much over whether they actually do anything in government. They would be the losers in a responsible party government model because that model embodies the purpose of elections: to evaluate and pass judgment upon the actions of governmental agents.

In frankness, I think that there is no single area of American political life in which there has been such a backslide than in the accountability that the ballot box yields. In far too many respects, the voting public enjoyed a more democratic system in 1832 than it does in 2007. The unexpected (but not unpredictable!) results of "progressive reforms" to our system have conspired again and again to reduce greatly the quality of our democratic process. In many ways, we had it better immediately after the "Jacksonian Revolution" than we do today. It is ironic and sad that, as America has brought more and more of its people into the voting process, it has made that process less and less effective at holding government to account. What I find so frustrating is that the ignorance of "good government" reformers for how our system actually works has been matched only by their smugness for those who dare to disagree. It is as if they think that water can be made to flow uphill, and anybody who disagrees is either compromised by the pernicious influence of corporate "Big Water" or is just plain foolish.

So, what law would I support? Generally speaking, I would support any law that recognizes the inevitability and utility of party involvement, and that tries to use this involvement to maximize electoral accountability without minimizing free speech. I would heartily support the following against either the BCRA or the FECA:

(1) For all entities except the political party and its candidates, there are no limitations on any resources raised or spent on electioneering. All private citizens, or groups of private citizens, are free to spend as they wish in whatever quantity they wish if their purpose is to persuade the public. They may spend freely to endorse the election or defeat of a candidate, or to encourage or discourage the public from holding any issue position.
(2) The political party and its candidates are not limited in how much they can spend, either. However, they are not allowed to raise unlimited sums from any single source. Nevertheless, the contribution limits imposed by the BCRA are raised significantly.
(3) The direct contribution and coordinated expenditure limits of the BCRA are abolished. There are no barriers to the extent to which the party may coordinate its activities with its candidates.
(4) The BCRA "stand by your ad" provisions are retained.
This is a system that, I think, recognizes the importance of the two goals I referenced at the beginning of the essay. Speech rights are protected here, I think. What is more, we achieve some sort of coherence in political messages to the voters, which is a prerequisite for maximizing democratic accountability. We recognize not only that the more voices that are heard (and clearly heard, hence point (4)), the more accountability our process can engender.

We also recognize that the party plays a unique role in this process, and that its natural tendency should be neither denied nor constrained, but guided to maximize accountability. These proposals would, I think, involve the party more intimately in its candidates' campaigns - thus helping the party impose a more coherent, more unified campaign message every election season. No longer would we see so many candidates so easily campaign on whatever will get them elected - rather, the party may now exercise a centripetal force on the 470 or so campaigns for the Congress. The nation would thus move closer to the ideal of responsible party government, in which it reviews and selects its preferred party platform.

This is why I would limit the sources of party revenue, i.e. the party would still not be allowed to acquire unlimited dollars from any one source. I think that it hampers the possibility of responsible party government. I will discuss this tomorrow.

Let me conclude this segment of the discussion with the following considerations. In my opinion, the recent history of campaign finance reform has been part and parcel of our nation's mixed, and misplaced, feelings about the political party - which date back to the Founders. The actions of the party today might be part of the problem, but the party itself is nevertheless the solution. The trick is not to limit the scope of party activity, but to encourage and guide it to a positive result.

Americans, for whatever reason, have always had trouble understanding this. Deep down, I think most of us are sympathetic to Hamilton's position that there should be no party because we should all see eye-to-eye on the "true" "national" interest. After more than two centuries of sectionalism and factionalism, I think we should dispense with this concept - we should recognize that there are going to be fundamental differences that separate us, that these differences can only be resolved by elections, that we need to frame electoral contests as clearly and as relevantly as we can, and that we need the party for this task. The role of the government should be to induce the party to frame our elections in socially relevant and responsible ways - e.g. we need to avoid the "small," patronage-minded politics of the political machines in the Gilded Age - while nevertheless promoting the role of the party.

Unfortunately, the FECA and the BCRA implicitly endorse this wrong-headed, albeit it very old, attitude about the party being an impediment to democratic accountability. Rather than treat the party as a potential ally of good governance, the FECA and the BCRA treat it as an enemy. And when the party does what it naturally does - try to involve itself in the campaign by "exploiting loopholes" (note the language used by reformers - the party does not "make use of the silence of the law," it "exploits loopholes!") - campaign finance reformers offer that as proof of their thesis that the party is part of the problem. This circular way of thinking leads to a stultification of all reform efforts, and an inefficient electoral process. The way out of the cycle is for us to "get over" our abhorrence of the party system, admit that it is inevitable, recognize that it can be of great benefit, and design a campaign finance system that helps the party achieve this benefit.

-Jay Cost