Can Campaign Finance Reform Consensus Be Reached?

Print Share on LinkedIn More

November 21, 2012; Source: Washington Post

Now that the election is over, it’s time for the warring sides to come together and compromise. That’s what the electorate voted for, right? That message doesn’t seem to have totally sunk in with the various advocates of campaign finance reform. The Washington Post’s T.W. Farnam reports that the campaign finance reform advocates haven’t discovered compromise and collaboration. At least four proposals, all of which involve some aspect of public funding for campaigns, are floating around Congress with advocacy groups behind them. Other efforts involve legislative solutions to the financing that exploded in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Farnam quotes Harvard University professor Lawrence Lessig, who suggests that some of the advocates are moving too fast. Lessig fears that some “insider reformers…[might] sell us out too soon for tiny little reforms.” Lessig is particularly critical of Democracy 21 and its founder, Fred Wertheimer, who appears to be moving quickly to construct political consensus for his proposal, supported by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), for a regime of campaign finance that would match the first $250 of campaign contributions with $5 of public funding for each dollar.

Essentially, the Wertheimer/Van Hollen proposal is geared to incentivize politicians to look for small donors. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) has introduced a similar matching bill that would also give a $100 tax credit to political contributors. An earlier bill would incentivize politicians to look for small donors by allowing them for a grant and matching funds if they limit individual contributions to $100. Other groups are aiming at imposing disclosure requirements on the campaign donations currently flowing to independent committees as a result of Citizens United. Wertheimer has suggested that provisions of the Sarbanes bill would “put out of business the most virulent super PACs.”

Farnam observes, “None of these proposals would reduce the amount of money in politics, however, …[but] They focus on changing the type of money that candidates collect.” If these proposals don’t stem the flow of money into the wasteful arena of negative attack ads, that is certainly a problem. Isn’t the challenge not simply to reveal whose money is distorting the system of federal campaigns but to get such vast sums of money out of the system?

The other problem is that Republicans aren’t signing on to any of these efforts. The Republican strategy, so far as Republicans have discussed campaign finance reform at all, involves removing limits on donations to presidential campaigns, which they believe would shift campaign financing out of the purportedly independent committees and back to the direct control of the candidates and the political parties.

Given the significance of campaign finance reform, nonprofits ought to be encouraging a mix of Lessig and Wertheimer: a thorough vetting of campaign finance reform proposals, as Lessig suggests, and some reasonably quick movement toward consensus and action, as Wertheimer wants.—Rick Cohen