Campaign Finance Reform That Actually Works

In the Washington Post, the political scientists Ray LaRaja and Brian Schaffner, authors of Campaign Finance and Political Polarization When Purists Prevail, offer a compelling case for stronger political parties. I was struck by the similarities between their argument and the one made by Peter Wallison and Joel Gora in National Review back in 2009. According to Wallison and Gora, America’s campaign-finance system had become a recipe for corruption. Successive campaign ”reform” efforts had moved us from a party-centered system to a candidate-centered system, and the results had been disastrous:

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.

So why did Congress decide to move in this direction? It’s simple. This candidate-centered system works extremely well for incumbents:

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.

The solution, according to Wallison and Gora, was to give the political parties greater freedom to raise funds and to coordinate their spending with their candidates. This simple change that would make for a much more competitive political system, as parties could back the most competitive candidates in every district. Under our current system, in contrast, the only candidates with a fighting chance are those who are capable of raising money independently. Moving to a party-centered system would reduce corruption, as candidates wouldn’t need to seek financial support themselves. Rather, funds would be raised primarily by the national political parties, which can build a much broader, more geographically diverse base of donors drawn from a wide range of interest groups. The job of the parties would be to aggregate these interest groups and to balance their competing considerations. Individual candidates, meanwhile, would no longer be dependent on a small handful of donors seeking access or favors. 

How might the public respond to Wallison and Gora’s proposal? LaRaja and Schaffner find that “the public already supports reducing regulations on parties,” particularly when voters (correctly) believe that deregulating the parties would tend to reduce corruption. So what’s stopping lawmakers from moving forward on a campaign finance reform that might actually work? Let’s not forget that the status quo helps incumbents. Conservatives in Congress who want to make our political system more responsive to grassroots voters and more competitive would do well to back legislation that would free the parties to do their job well, and that would free lawmakers from constantly having to raise money so they could instead focus on their constitutional duties. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute Policy Fellow. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Affairs, a member of the ...

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