All Americans should read Governor Roemer’s stinging attack on our campaign-finance system. Reformers and academics have previously pointed out the impact of the way we pay for our elections on the legislative process and public policy. But unlike some other critics, Governor Roemer is not a utopian idealist but an experienced political and business leader who has inside knowledge of how the political process actually works. As a result, his critique of our current campaign-finance system is particularly powerful, and dismaying.
Unfortunately, the passionate intensity of his challenge to the current system is not accompanied by a plausible plan for reform. His program has three parts: (1) unlimited spending by all campaign participants, including corporations and other politically active individuals, firms, and organizations; (2) very tight limits—just one hundred dollars—on what individuals can give to a candidate, and a ban on PAC contributions; and (3) some undeveloped ideas for stimulating small contributions that might include vouchers but no other government support for candidates. This is a recipe for failure. If adopted, his program would largely replicate the status quo, and might possibly make it worse.
The first two elements—unlimited spending and tight contribution limits—basically describe the campaign-finance system we now have for most elections, except that he proposes much tighter contribution limits than current law allows in most states. The likely result of unlimited spending and very tightly limited contributions would simply be to aggravate all the dysfunctional features of our current system: politicians engaged in endless fundraising; bundlers who gain clout by helping candidates pool large numbers of small donations; millionaire candidates who can avoid collecting large numbers of small checks by financing themselves; and the further rise of independent spending. If you think candidates devote too much time to fundraising now, just check their calendars when the maximum contribution they can collect from an individual is reduced from $2500 to $100, so they have to win donations from 25 times more contributors to raise the same amount of money. And if you think outside organizations play too large a role now, just wait until you see elections in which cash-strapped campaigns tacitly call on “independent committees” funded by the same individuals and PACs who can no longer contribute to candidates.
Campaigns need money. Candidates and parties need to spend money to develop their programs, to communicate their issues and ideas to the public, to connect with grassroots groups, to persuade independents, to register voters, and to get them to the polls. Given the limited amount of attention devoted by the media to political issues and ideas—as opposed to “gaffes” and the “horse race” of who’s ahead in the latest poll—the voters need to hear from candidates, parties, and other groups in order to understand what is at stake, get a sense of the different positions of political competitors, and ultimately cast informed votes. This takes money. The problem with our campaign finance system, as Governor Roemer has pointed out, is not the money itself, but where the money comes from, what candidates have to do to get it, and the implications for governance from the fundraising process and candidates’ dependence on large private contributions.
Limiting contributions without reducing spending would aggravate the dysfunction of the current system.
The solution requires providing all significant candidates adequate campaign funding without strings attached to large private donations. Simply relying on small individual donations will not work. There are not enough people willing to make campaign contributions to adequately fund all campaigns. The Internet has not changed this, and is unlikely to do so. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign garnered attention for its record amount of small donations via the Internet, but Obama was an unusually charismatic candidate who had already obtained considerable media attention. Even so, what launched his campaign was the very large number of very large donations he obtained in 2007. In most elections, lesser-known candidates running for lower-level offices are simply not going to get enough money in small donations to mount effective campaigns. Some form of public subsidy will be necessary to wean candidates from large private donations while funding all campaigns sufficiently for genuine electoral competition and voter information.
Governor Roemer opposes public funding, although he says, cryptically, he would support vouchers that “came from funds the voters have contributed personally.” I don’t know what he means by that, but it sounds like some kind of tax credit for small donations. Such a program might stimulate an increase in small donations, which would be a good thing, but it is unlikely to generate enough money to fund candidates at all levels of government. Moreover, a voucher plan tends to favor candidates who at the outset of the campaign have the resources to campaign for the vouchers, are already well-known to the voters, or have strong backers. A voucher plan will do little to help challengers, independents, and political newcomers.
Only a public funding program that offers adequate subsidies to candidates who qualify by raising a threshold amount in small private donations can reduce dependence on large private donors, adequately fund campaigns for offices at all levels of government, and enable political newcomers to compete effectively with incumbents and established political figures. Such public funding programs have succeeded in places as different as Maine, Arizona, and New York City. Governor Roemer opposes using tax dollars to fund campaigns that taxpayers may disagree with, but the point of public funding is not to help individual campaigns but to reform the system as a whole. By reducing the dependence of elected officials on large private contributions and by enabling all candidates to present facts, arguments, and ideas to the voters, public funding can provide for competitive elections, informed voters, and elected representatives capable of making decisions without worrying about how those decisions will affect their prospects for campaign contributions.