Fighting fire with fire: will more party dollars save the system?

a plane dropping money on symbols of the Democratic and Republican party

Image credit: Flickr user DonkeyHotey

In the post-Citizens United era where super PACs and dark money groups are nearly ubiquitous and yielding huge amounts of money, political parties are having a hard time competing. A newly-released report by the Brennan Center, “Stronger Parties, Stronger Democracy: Rethinking Reform,” authored by counsels Daniel Weiner and Ian Vandewalker, examines the problem of campaign finance by proposing measures that would strengthen political parties.

The Brennan Center hosted a discussion on Wednesday that featured their own Daniel Weiner, Spencer Overton of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, and Commissioner Lee Goldman from the FEC. The panelists, with questions from moderator Matea Gold of the Washington Post, focused on whether the financial empowerment of political parties was a vital mechanization for democratizing the political system. Afterward, several audience members contributed valid points of critique on the report’s recommendations.

The report rides on the premise that political parties are instrumental for a healthy democracy and that in this current political environment, there are no other viable alternatives that are as effective at getting-out-the-vote or as responsive to public opinion. Thus, in order to prevent candidates from becoming more beholden to the enticing forces of super PACs and dark money groups, institutional parties should be strengthened “as meaningfully transparent organizations that function as engines of broad participation in politics,” the report insists (page 3).

In the paper, Weiner and Vandewalker proposed five measures to strengthen political parties. Briefly, they propose to:

  • Allow parties to enact public financing;
  • Raise or eliminate coordinated spending limits and other limits on party contributions to candidates;
  • Pull back on federal regulation of state and local parties;
  • Loosen certain disclosure requirements while tightening others;
  • Loosen certain restrictions on contributions to parties.

As a disclaimer, Weiner began by stating the paper was not a “misty-eyed” nostalgic yearning for the political parties of the past, when back-door deals were standard and the politicians, as all white males, did not resemble the rest of America.

Commissioner Goldman stated that candidates are starting to depend more on outside groups for funding and feel less obliged to stay close to the party; as the party-candidate relationship weakens, the party is also made less accountable for the candidates running under its name.

Along with the weakening of political parties’ holdover candidates, their ability to act as democratic institutions has also dwindled in recent years. The report proceeds from an assumption that political parties are engines for democracy: “In a time of historically low turnout, the parties’ capacity to mobilize ordinary voters is one of their most important democratic functions” (page 12).

Commissioner Goldman expanded on this belief through a defense of local party committees as “highly virtuous of civic engagement.” He noted that in his experience, local groups exemplified the most democratic values of participation, transparency, and grassroots activity. Door-knocking and GOTV mobilization happens on the local level and encourages people to engage in politics who wouldn’t otherwise. Local parties tend to avoid being more active because of FEC regulations that impose strict reporting on expenditures, which explains the paper’s proposal to relax federal rules of state/local parties. Goldman also proposed raising the limit that an individual can give to a state/district/local party committee (FEC Contribution Limits) from the current $10,000 to what it would be if indexed for inflation: $13,500.

Public financing was hailed as a potentially effective and democratic measures to reinvigorate the political parties. Overton agreed that public financing would be an inclusive way to facilitate small donors, and argued that the proposal, if budget-neutral, would not be stuck in Congress.

Apart from the importance of small donors, both Weiner and Overton noted the political reality facing campaigns: they still need big bucks. Despite the increasing use of frictionless, online platforms to donate, there are still transactional costs related to asking for small sums of money from many people. A fundraising event for 500 people donating $200 would logistically cost more than an event hosting 50 people donating $2,000 each. Not only that, Weiner noted that big money might be necessary as a sort of “seed money” to fund more democratic small donor events and efforts.

Despite these apparently higher transactional costs, political parties are still incentivized to reach out to many small donors because of the associated benefits. Parties can gather voter contacts and build a mailing list. Exposing more local people to the names and faces of candidates is good for the party. People who donate during campaigns are more likely to vote on election day.

But is more money in politics the answer?

Several dissenting audience members acknowledged the logic behind the proposals but expressed doubt that the average American would favorably agree that injecting more money into the system is better for democracy. A representative from Transparency International USA cited a recent Gallup poll that showed 75 percent of Americans think corruption is widespread in the government. He brought up the tension between the fact that most Americans don’t trust the government and the need for more small donors for greater political participation. People don’t like the money that is already in politics but to combat cynical indifference; we need more money from the same people. Overton responded, saying that the issue at hand is a matter of authentic representation: the quantity of money is less important than its source. If the money comes from the people themselves, then people will trust the money in the system.

A representative from the Campaign Legal Center stated that parties are empty shells, not very effective in this current political environment, so why put in more money into that system? Lifting or raising contribution limits would enable the same people who are already giving a lot to give even more. “It’s the wrong solution for the wrong problem,” she declared.

Overton wanted to dispel the “Robin Hood” notion that simply raising contribution limits to political parties would make “everything wonderful,” increase voter turnout to 90 percent, and spur underrepresented communities to be more politically engaged. He stressed that reform, in order to be comprehensive, had to center on the idea that constituents should be “equal, real participants.”

“The primary reason people give is because they’re asked,” Overton stated. He argued that people giving even $5 a month would be like stakeholders and feel empowered to be real participants.

But again, would average disaffected Americans want to give part of their hard-earned money every month to a system they see as broken? In the audience, FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub recognized that parties are incentivized to reach out to more people, but what would incentivize lower-income people to donate what little they have? Especially if parties seem distant and irrelevant.

Goldman said they only seem powerless because they are “structurally bankrupt and cash-strapped.” Politics will seem more relevant and responsive to people’s lives when local parties have money to raise and spend. Then, Goldman argued, emboldened local parties could gain access and influence from their members of Congress, and people would feel that their money is making an impact.

Based on comments from the panel and insights given by experts in the audience, the paper contains useful proposals but it may be difficult to convince campaign finance reform organizations and the general public that implementing these recommendations will solve the money dilemma in our political system.