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The Distillery: A Crash Course in Campaign Finance’s Critical Moment

In the latest edition of “The Distillery: A Money in Politics Digest,” Ben Brickner looks at a paper by Yasmin Dawood on campaign finance and American democracy’s critical moment.

  • Benjamin T. Brickner
May 28, 2015

The Distillery: A Money in Politics Digest will provide a periodic look at the latest legal research in the ongoing national debate about the role of money in politics.

Campaign finance regulation is admittedly not the most inviting topic. It has even been suggested that this blog’s title – The Distillery – was selected for the type of beverage required to approach the field’s imposing façade.  And given the sad state of campaign finance lately, it is tempting to want to avoid the matter entirely.

But every once in a while, there comes a writer who brings clarity to the opaque, and order to the complex.  Don’t be misled by the arching title of Prof. Yasmin Dawood’s recent paper, “Campaign Finance and American Democracy.”  It’s efficient, informative and readable.

This is all the more remarkable considering the expansive universe Dawood covers.  In only 13 pages, she summarizes the current campaign finance debate (liberty vs. equality), surveys the legal framework and aftermath of Citizens United (hello, super PACs and dark money), reviews the sprawling academic literature (including strands of political theory, constitutional law and economics), and describes empirical research on the actual effect of money in politics (varied and diverse).

In other words, “Campaign Finance and American Democracy” provides a superb survey of the field.  But as Dawood herself notes, given its breadth and occasionally disconnected nature, “it is almost impossible to draw any conclusions” that advance our understanding of where the field is headed.  Even so, a few trends emerge:

  • The debate has generally settled into two camps: libertarian and egalitarian.  Libertarians believe campaign finance limits burden speech.  Egalitarians believe limits are necessary to prevent burdens on speech, because unlimited money allows the wealthy to dominate the conversation.
  • The Supreme Court has established a legal framework that creates unlimited demand for money (because we cannot limit expenditures by candidates) and limited supply (because we can limit contributions to candidates).  This bifurcation has allowed campaign costs to soar, forcing candidates to spend more time soliciting big money, and enhancing the role of super PACs and secretive “social welfare” spenders.
  • Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has also said the only legal justification for campaign finance limits is to prevent quid pro quo corruption – a direct exchange of official action for money.  Candidates allowing special access and influence to contributors is just politics.
  • There is growing consensus that our campaign finance system is beyond broken and must be rebuilt.  Consequently, scholars have begun to reconsider fundamental questions of representation, equality, influence and governance in order to generate new ideas about how liberty and equality can be balanced in our electoral system.  So far, there is little consensus on these issues.

For the uninitiated, Dawood offers an excellent crash course in the field of campaign finance, at an especially crucial moment.  Hillary Clinton recently announced she would use overturning Citizens United as a litmus test for Supreme Court appointments.  Clinton, Marco Rubio and all-but-announced candidate Jeb Bush (among others) are poised to outsource traditional campaign activities to friendly super PACs that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money.  And the Koch brothers have promised to spend an historic $889 million on the 2016 elections, much of which will flow through secretive “social welfare” groups that do not disclose their donors.

If ever there were a time to leap into the conversation, now is that time.  How campaigns are financed profoundly affects government responsiveness and political equality.

(Photo: Flickr/PictureofMoney)