Beware ‘Conservative’ Campaign Finance Reformers

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When the curtain dropped on the 2014 midterms, Democrats weren’t the only ones needing to regroup. Larry Lessig and Mark McKinnon, cofounders of Mayday PAC, had just blown $10 million trying to elect campaign finance reformers. Their postmortem revealed an inconvenient truth: partisanship matters in politics.

Thus, ardent progressive Lessig and ‘No Label’-professed Republican McKinnon separated their venture, with McKinnon creating Take Back Our Republic PAC. The new PAC retains Mayday’s goals but discards its overt connections to radical progressivism and Lessig’s persona. Conservatives should not be fooled by the subterfuge.

McKinnon argues campaign finance reforms are needed for two reasons: (i.) large contributions may become “transactional” i.e. traded for votes or political favors; and (ii.) larger reliance on small donors would benefit the system. Neither stands up to scrutiny.

Although near-universally accepted, politicians do not actively trade votes for political support. The Supreme Court directly addressed this issue in McConnell v. FEC. Although the litigants produced a 100,000-page record, the government could not find a single vote traded for legislative largess. Academic studies support this conclusion. A major Ohio State University study last year stated, “If corruption is limited to the quid pro quo exchange of money for political favors … there is little threat of corruption from outside spending.”

Reformers demonize political spending because it is easily measured and plays into existing stereotypes. But lawmakers vote for a variety of conflated and impossible-to-separate reasons, including ideology, party loyalty, constituent desires, and personal relationships. As the OSU study stated, “There is not one clear and obvious causal mechanism between the campaign funding inputs and legislative outputs – the mechanisms are varied and they change over time.”

Post-Citizens United, the relative importance of money has actually decreased. Campaign expenditures have dropped along with the cost of winning. In 2014, total Congressional campaign spending came to about $3.7 billion, which is slightly less than the inflation-adjusted total for 2012 and much less than 2010’s $4 billion. Winning campaigns are also spending less. In 2014, House victors spent $1.2 million on average, down from 2012’s $1.5 million. The Senate contrast is even sharper: 2014 – $8.6 million; 2012 – $11.4 million. If politicians can be bought, why are they lowering the for-sale price?

McKinnon next proposes numerically increasing small donors by essentially bribing them with tax credits. The assumption additional small donors would benefit the system is a reformer truism with little empirical support. Small donors disproportionately tend toward the extremes of their respective ideological flanks — think Michelle Bachman and Elizabeth Warren donors. Conversely big donors “buy” the mushy middle. One study found only 4 of the top 30 wealthiest contributors — the “.01 percent” — fell outside the ideological mean of their respective parties: Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and George Soros on the left and Charles Koch on the right. And juicing the tax code to induce behavior is fraught with unintended consequences, ‘Cash for Clunkers’ and the housing bubble being two recent examples. The danger here is increased polarization and decreased stability.

But raw political power may be the ultimate reformer aim. Lessig has compared his movement to the original early 20th Century progressives and has stated climate change legislation and further federal intervention into healthcare as policy end goals. The joint Lessig-McKinnon project hired professional staff that shared those goals. Mayday PAC gave nearly $200,000 to Global Strategy Group, its main contact there was apparently Bill Burton.

Who is Bill Burton? After positions in the Obama White House, Burton left to head Priorities USA Action — Obama’s 2012 Super PAC. Burton’s group ranked fourth among Super PACs, spending $65 million against Mitt Romney. It has now pledged to spend millions more electing Hillary Clinton. Maybe big money only corrupts some candidates.

The only people trying to limit campaign spending are those afraid of what might be said. McKinnon puts it crassly, conservatives like “big money” because “conventional wisdom [is] money benefits the Republican Party.” Perhaps, but it is much deeper than that. Conservatives oppose reformers because they don’t believe the government should be telling anyone what to say or how much to say it. ‘No Labelist’ McKinnon may have difficulty understanding this deeper principle. But ideas matter more than money, and those lacking the former try to silence others.

Paul H. Jossey is a lawyer living in Alexandria, Virginia. Please follow him on Twitter.