Campaign Finance Law Is Even Worse Than You Think

Here are five reasons lax campaign finance law is harming society.

Editorial cartoon satirizing Super PACs.
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If you think the political system is broken, then you ought to take a closer look at the way we finance elections. Most people recognize that the billions of dollars flowing to candidates have a pernicious effect on governance. As a former Congressional candidate, I’m here to tell you that it’s even worse than you think.

How does our system of financing elections harm society? Let me count the ways:

1. Raising money takes a tremendous amount of time — as much as three or four hours a day — so it crowds out more meaningful activities. Paradoxically, I found myself less informed on some issues as a candidate than I was when I was not running for Congress. Why? Because I had less time for reading, meeting with experts, attending symposia and doing the other things that deepen one’s understanding of complex issues. How good would you be at your job if you had to spend three or four hours every day on nonproductive tasks before you could even sit down and get to work?

2. Raising money is the only truly intolerable part of running for office; as such, it deters many really high quality people from running. I would do it all again: ringing doorbells, attending candidates forums, giving speeches at house parties and teas — but not the fundraising. Not the hours of “phone time” in which multiple aides dialed numbers and then handed me the receiver whenever they got a live prospective donor on the line. (This is more efficient than having the candidate dial.) Not the repeated humiliating rejections. Not the friends and acquaintances who stopped taking my calls.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Would you be comfortable asking your mother-in-law for $1,000? That’s just the beginning. As I’ve written before, if we design a campaign process that no sane person would want to endure, then we should not be surprised when the system does not produce sane politicians.

3. Campaign donations corrupt the system in subtle ways. The problem is not just that donors give money and demand favors, though there is plenty of that. More often the need to raise cash steers politicians in a particular direction. Let me give you an example. When I was running, we needed to raise a certain amount of money every day just to keep the campaign doors open. By the late stages of a campaign, all the “easy money” has been raised. The candidate starts to feel like a thirsty man wandering in the desert, and interest groups are the ones holding jugs of water.

I recall my campaign manager telling me that a group of personal injury attorneys was willing to hold an event for me that could net around $50 thousand in a single evening. For a thirsty man, that’s a lot of water. What this group wanted to hear was my views on tort reform. To be more precise, they wanted to hear that I would not support significant tort reform.

I declined the event because I happen to think that tort reform — and malpractice reform, in particular — should be part of our health care reform efforts. But the money dangled by this particular group is a perfect example of how legislative doors get closed that should stay open. And while it may seem admirable that I declined the fundraiser, you need to remember that I lost the election. It’s not like I’m spending my days doing tort reform right now.

[Check out our collection of political cartoons on Super PACs.]

4. Money in politics promotes partisanship. Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard professor working hard to promote campaign finance reform, drew my attention to this connection. Politicians have learned that inflammatory e-mails and other scare tactics are far more effective tools for raising money than sending out reasoned treatises that explain the need for compromise. So, like trained circus animals, politicians have learned what kinds of partisan missives will open checkbooks. This is good for raising cash and really bad for solving complex issues like immigration and climate change.

5. All of this erodes faith in the system. Main Street Americans increasingly feel like the fix is in and Washington operates for the benefit of big money interests. I worry when voters no longer believe that they can elect representatives who will represent their interests. To fix that perception, we need to change the reality.

I’m not going to pretend that campaign finance reform is easy. Efforts like McCain-Feingold have just created new loopholes. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has constrained what Congress can do.

Still, there are many groups offering bold and creative proposals for fixing this broken process. I don’t agree with all of them. For example, a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United is probably not realistic. I’m also averse to opening the hood on the Constitution in this hyper-partisan environment.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

On the other hand, there are some clever fixes that would pass Constitutional scrutiny, such as offering public funding for candidates who agree to abide by voluntary spending limits. Lessig has proposed giving every citizen of voting age a public voucher that they could give to the candidates of their choice.

The group Represent.us is pushing The American Anti-Corruption Act, a package of reforms crafted by former Federal Election Commission chairman Trevor Potter that would change assorted rules related to the behavior of lobbyists and candidates.

And so on. Some of these ideas are better than others. For now, I’m just asking you to accept a simple premise: 1) Washington is not working. 2) The way we fund campaigns exacerbates that dysfunction. 3) So let’s consider changing how we fund campaigns.

Campaign finance reform is not a panacea. But if you’re in a hole caused by politicians digging for checks, stop writing those checks.