Can Campaign Finance Reform Save Us?
”With all the talk about changing Washington, voters are shrewd enough to understand that if contributors give this much money to the candidates in both parties, there is little chance that Washington will be much different in 2013.”
This is how Princeton University Professor of history and public affairs, Julian Zelizer, began his latest commentary for CNN, It took a scandal to get real campaign finance reform.
His article is one of the first in a new series put out by CNN, “money in politics,” which focusses entirely on issues surrounding campaign finance reform.
The new series highlights what the Occupy protests have already shown: Americans’ concern with money’s influence over government has reached a fevered pitch – calls for “campaign finance reform,” and for government to “get the money out” of politics, even topped New York City General Assembly’s top two ”national chants” for the movement.
The theme has been a focal point of recent protests to such an extent, in fact, that even Florida’s Representative Ted Deutch and Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico have felt there is some justification for introducing constitutional amendments to curb corporate influence over government.
But what exactly are the proposed “campaign finance reforms,” and are they policies we should take seriously?
Details of the reforms:
Campaign finance reformers scored their first major victory in 1972 with the passage of the Federal Elections Campaign Act, or FECA, which required candidates to disclose sources of campaign contributions and expenditures, put caps on the amount of “hard money” individuals could donate to a campaign, and also created, for the first time a public financing system for politicians to opt into.
Since its passage, reform advocates have attempted to push these regulations further. In addition to those already on the books, they propose a hodgepodge of new restrictions and laws to limit the influence of special interest groups, corporations and wealthy donors.
The new proposals have ranged from creating a “matching system,” where government literally “matches” the small contributions of citizens (theoretically “doubling” their influence and apparently making them more competitive with bigger donors), all the way to Yale Law School professors Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres‘ proposal for an election system where citizens vote with a fixed number of dollars for which candidate should be funded the most.
Perhaps the most successful current reform effort in the states, however, is the “clean money” system, which has been in place in Arizona and Maine since 2000.
The system, like FECA, gives candidates who have reached certain signature and donation requirements a fixed amount of state funding for their campaign, should they choose to opt into it. That money then constitutes the bulk of what they will be allowed to spend on their campaign.
The jury is out, however, on whether the “clean money” reforms in these states have achieved significant, or even noteworthy, results for voters. Research on whether the system has decreased incumbency or private financial influence over elections has been mostly negative (studies to date suggest they haven’t), as have been studies on whether or not “clean money” legislation has increased voter participation (the data again points towards no).
Why won’t the reforms work?
While there may certainly be a case that despite its initial setbacks, campaign finance reform could decrease incumbency rates in government, perhaps the question we should be asking is not – as Julian Zelizer asked in his commentary for CNN – “how can we enact comprehensive campaign finance reform” – but instead, “why should we care?”
People don’t presumably want campaign finance reforms enacted simply to reduce incumbency rates. Neither, presumably, do they want reform just for the sake of increasing voter participation. At the heart of their efforts is a belief that by increasing the degree to which government represents the people, we will have increased the degree to which government passes legislation in their interests.
It may be worth asking, then, whether or not the state is capable of representing us to begin with.
The answer, by any objective measure, is a resounding no. Whether maintaining massively unpopular occupations in the Middle East, enacting draconian austerity measures, or regularly passing national budgets which contradict it’s citizens’ own espoused priorities, government has a piss poor record of representing the public.
Of course, this isn’t to say that government is incapable of passing legislation which benefits us; clearly they can, and have. But in the rare event that political decisions actually do wind up benefitting us, it’s normally incidental. And so, for example, when healthcare reform was passed by the Obama administration, millions more American’s wound up with healthcare coverage – but only because the insurance companies won a major victory in the healthcare mandate.
Numerous observers have commented on this tendency in the past. To the author and anarchist, Emile Pouget, political reforms were best understood “[as] a consequence of amendments made to the system of production.” By this he meant that the pace and nature of reform is ultimately dictated by the needs of the economy – that capital sets limits on the state’s decisions, and government is forced to operate within those confines.
Campaign finance reformers don’t recognize these limits. They assume that the state is simply a repository of influence, in which different groups – lobbyists, special interests, citizens – vie for attention.
But this view “isolates the state from its social environment,” notes author John Halloway. ”[It] attributes to the state an autonomy of action that it just does not have. In reality, what the state does is limited and shaped by the fact that it exists as just one node in a web of social relations.”
Ultimately, campaign finance reform cannot insulate government from the pressures inherent in governing a capitalist country. Government policy is not simply “pro-business” or “anti worker” because businesses have extra access to our elected officials. They benefit the wealthy because without pro-business legislation, the capitalist economy would simply fail, and their roles as governors with it.