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Back On The Hamster Wheel

The ink was hardly dry on the midterm results before candidates were enticing money from wealthy donors.

November 25, 2014

The 2014 election results were hardly dry on the newsprint, before almost every American politician and would-be politician hopped back on the hamster wheel, furiously spinning for more and more money.

A mere 72-hours after Election Day, a bevy of donors headed down to Florida to enjoy a weekend raising money for Senator David Vitter’s PAC at the Four Seasons Orlando.  Disney character breakfast: check. Hoop Dee Doo BBQ dinner: check. Golf with the Senator: check. All yours with a $3,000 donation to the Louisiana Reform PAC.

I know what you’re thinking. After that election, who doesn’t want pancakes with Cinderella, a gimme on the green, and a nice platter of ribs…in Florida? After all, not only was the election brutal, but we’ve got to get going on 2016.

And so we do—because 2014 was just a dry run for the new era of money in politics. The forces that were mustering through in immediate post-Citizens United era (the 2012 election) and the post-McCutcheon era (the 2014 election), are now full steam ahead for 2016.

With the 2016 election barreling toward us, it’s time to face facts. The Supreme Court is not going to reverse course on campaign finance laws any time soon. Congress is not going to pass new legislation, much less the constitutional amendment needed to make major reform possible. The Federal Election Commission is not going to move the needle, even in the unlikely event it manages to issue a few useful regulations.

2014 was prologue. The arc of the story will not soon change. That light you see at the end of the tunnel? It isn’t sunlight. It’s the train coming to hit you. 2016 promises more and more dark money, more and more outside spending, more and more mega-donors, and less and less disclosure.

When the curtain came down on this November’s elections, the discouraging campaign spending analyses came out. The Brennan Center reported earlier this month that outside spending in Senate races surged ahead of the 2012 averages. Outside groups put more than $340 million into 11 close Senate races. And a substantial portion of that outside spending was by dark groups—organizations that do not report who their donors are.

Moreover, this year, candidate and party spending declined and an increasing portion of election expenditures were by clandestine outside groups and megadonors.

This trend is offensive to democracy. Outside spenders have no accountability to voters. Their motivations are often murky. Their techniques are more manipulative than usual. At least when campaign spending is dominated by actual candidates and parties, there’s a modicum of accountability to voters. As the connection grows attenuated, the fundamental purpose of elections – creating the bond between voter and representative that legitimizes our democracy is frayed.

But enough bewailing the state of affairs. That’s the way it is. And that’s the way it will be in 2016, only worse.

It might be time for us to ask some very tough questions and to be prepared to embrace some unpleasant options. So here goes…and I don’t like this any more than you do.

If disclosure is one of the few keys left to holding our admittedly shoddy campaign finance system in check, then should we consider a regulatory structure that encourages shifting more money to entities that have to disclose their donors? That means something pretty simple: raise contribution limits to candidates and parties. Post-McCutcheon we may be heading there anyway.

Today candidates and parties are still the biggest spenders in elections, but they are rapidly being eclipsed by outside and dark groups. One reason why: if you’ve got Daddy Warbucks-like money it’s efficient to write a big check to an outside group. The alternative? Influencing an election in $2600 check increments.  

Meanwhile, if you’re a candidate, you have to spend hours and hours every day making your budget at $2600 a shot. (For a donation limits refresher go here.) No wonder candidates and donors like outside spending better. It’s just easier.

Raise the limits and you will alter the incentives. I will not find many friends in this proposal, and to my knowledge, it has not been embraced by the Brennan Center.

This idea has its limits. The biggest is that many politicians and big donors like the anonymity, not just the efficiency, of outside spending. Outside groups can say and do things that voters and the press would skewer candidates for. As the head of the Chamber of Commerce, Tom Donohue, said: “I want to give them all the deniability they need.”

Weighing against this is the simple fact that most politicians and parties would still rather be the ones doing the spending and making the money decisions than letting outsiders do it. That may help force more of this spending into the light.

The ideal of course would be to couple raising limits with increased disclosure requirements for Super PACS and dark entities, i.e. the social welfare organizations (under IRS code 501(c)(4)) so active this election.

And the only way this proposal would be palatable is if it were coupled with increased small donor power. The Brennan Center has long advocated a system where small donations are matched anywhere from two to five-fold. So a $50 donation could mean $250 additional to a campaign. Today, small donors represent a miniscule but important part of the money in politics ecosystem. And it seems that their participation declined in 2014. They likely will surge back during a presidential election year. We need to give them more oomph if they are ever to have a meaningful impact. (They have had an effect in New York City because of the small donor match.)

If you think that the state of affairs in campaign finance land has driven me to desperate gambles, you are right. The trend line for 2016 is clear. How else are we going to alter it?

(Photo: Thinkstock)

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

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