EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an excerpt from the authors’ new book, Better Parties, Better Government: A Realistic Program for Campaign Finance Reform (AEI Press, 2009).
The campaign-finance system in the United States is unusual in one major respect: It is candidate-centered. The candidates themselves, rather than the political parties, must raise the necessary funds to run a campaign. The political parties, which choose the candidates — or at least run the process under which their candidates are selected — are severely restricted in their ability to finance their candidates’ campaigns.
As a system purportedly designed to reduce corruption and undue influence — and upheld against First Amendment challenges on this basis — a candidate-centered fundraising system seems, to say the least, rather odd. Among other things, it places the candidates and officeholders who need campaign funds in exactly the position they should not be occupying — as supplicants, seeking financial support from those who are trying to influence them.
As one might expect, there was a reason for structuring the campaign-finance system in this peculiar and contradictory way: It is highly favorable to the incumbents who designed it. But it also has a number of other deficiencies: It favors wealthy candidates who can finance their own campaigns; it piles up campaign funds in the coffers of powerful officeholders where these funds are not needed; it discourages qualified people from running for office; it absorbs an extraordinary amount of the time and attention of officeholders, who should be spending most of their energy on the responsibilities of their offices; it increases the costs of campaigns by increasing the role of expensive consultants and other campaign specialists; it deprives voters of useful information; and it multiplies the power of special interests at the expense of a broader national interest. Most of all, it weakens the political parties, which alone have the ability both to develop popular support for a course of action and implement it with legislation.
None of these deficiencies has been addressed in all the campaign “reform” efforts that have characterized the last four decades. In fact, most of this legislation has made things worse, particularly for challengers; only the Supreme Court’s invalidation of the most egregious pro-incumbent elements of the so-called reforms has preserved for challengers some limited opportunities. Still, the remaining restrictions — on the size of contributions and, most important, on the ability of parties to fund the campaigns of their candidates — continue as substantial obstacles for those who seek to defeat incumbent members of the House and Senate.
The current restrictions on campaign funding by political parties limit both the amount that parties can contribute to their candidates and the amount that parties can spend in coordination with their candidates. In the leading case in this area, Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court held that campaign-related spending coordinated with a candidate is the same as a contribution, and thus could validly be restricted by Congress. In two subsequent cases, the Court held — on First Amendment grounds — that political parties had the same rights as others to engage in unlimited “independent” or uncoordinated spending on behalf of their candidates, but that they could be restricted in their coordinated spending because party contributions could become a route by which party contributors could influence officeholders.
Thus, as the law stands today, parties are severely limited in what they do to provide direct assistance to their candidates, but are as free as any other group to spend funds independently — on an uncoordinated basis — in support of the candidates running for office under the party banner. However, independent or uncoordinated spending is generally considered by candidates and political specialists to be far less efficient and effective than coordinated spending, and is often counterproductive. As Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution has pointed out, “diminished efficiency and accountability” are the costs of requiring that parties’ spending be independent of their candidates: “Having to set up a separate independent spending operation increases the administrative expenses borne by parties. More importantly, it runs the risk of conflicting messages and less than optimal timing of ads run by candidates and their parties.”
Consider some of the specific restrictions dictated by current law. Party committees are allowed to give directly only $5,000 per election to their House candidates and $39,900 to Senate candidates. The $5,000 cap on contributions to a House candidate is the same amount that it was in 1940, and would be worth about $65,000 in today’s dollars; the cap for a Senate candidate would be $519,000. While parties can make coordinated expenditures of $42,100 in support of their congressional candidates (the coordinated expenditure limit with Senate candidates depends on the number of voters in the state and is commensurately larger), the continued persistence of caps and coordinated expenditure limits seriously hinders the important role of political parties in our political system and is an uncomfortable reminder of the incumbent-protective nature of contribution limits.