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The Distillery: Sparking Discussion on Party Financing Reform

To help reinvigorate organized parties as a more democratic and transparent counter-weight to super PACs, the Brennan Center suggests several changes to rules that govern fundraising by political parties.

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.

Political parties, for all their faults, are a core ingredient of representative democracy. Yet in the current campaign finance environment, they are being eclipsed by super PACs and other outside groups that can raise unlimited money, creating a concentration of political spending power not seen in decades. The new campaign finance juggernauts operate with few legal restrictions, and answer primarily to small slices of the political elite and major donors.

In a new paper, we suggest several changes to rules that govern fundraising by political parties — changes designed in part to help reinvigorate organized parties as a more democratic and transparent counter-weight to outside groups. The paper has already generated some discussion, and we look forward to a lively conversation on the topic today in Washington, D.C.

Stronger Parties, Stronger Democracy: Rethinking Reform grapples with the argument that the parties have been weakened by the current campaign finance regime. While the days when party bosses reigned supreme over candidates are long gone, until recently organized parties were still the main supporting players in American elections. Over the last decade, however, the combination of the McCain-Feingold law’s stricter party fundraising limits and the effective deregulation of outside group fundraising that resulted from Citizens United has left parties at an enormous fundraising disadvantage. Super PACs and other outside groups can take donations of any size, and they now routinely outspend the parties. The quality of our governance suffers as a result, some argue, because party leaders can no longer control their most extreme elements (see, e.g., Boehner, John). The solution, they claim, is to greatly lift or even eliminate party contribution limits. Coincidentally, the day our report was released, Thomas Edsall’s column in The New York Times argued just that.

The claim that richer parties are a solution for government dysfunction is highly contested, with some dismissing the rosy vision of party machines as little more than unhelpful nostalgia and romanticism. We are not interested in resolving this debate, but that doesn’t mean we think the fate of the parties is irrelevant.

In an era of unprecedented disengagement with the political process, we think the organized parties’ biggest selling point is their ability to function as engines of participation. Parties facilitate broad participation in politics, offering volunteering opportunities and soliciting vast numbers of small donations. They also continue to play a central role in registering voters and getting them to the polls.

We are not persuaded that complete deregulation would enhance these qualities. Many super PACs and other outside groups are already part of the parties’ wider networks, since they are controlled by consultants and former staffers to party leaders. Lifting contribution limits could simply turn the formal parties into clones of these entities — top-down, opaque organizations driven by the need to attract mega-donors. Not only would such changes further disempower ordinary citizens, they would likely also increase the risk of corruption.

Instead, we propose more targeted reforms to strengthen organized parties while enhancing their most democratic and participatory characteristics. These proposals include:

  • Public financing that matches and multiplies small donations;
  • Raising limits on parties’ spending coordinated with their candidates;
  • Lessening federal restrictions on state and local parties; and
  • Raising the threshold for donor disclosure to eliminate the potential for small donors to be discouraged by publicity.

Commenters on the paper have raised interesting questions about party fundraising rules. Some have explored how much middle ground there is between regulation and deregulation, asking how we can pursue the post-Watergate reform objectives while re-evaluating the model put in place after Nixon’s downfall. Some have doubted the extent to which parties are engines of participation, asking whether parties mobilize large numbers of “party faithful” or whether grassroots activists follow candidates more than parties. Even among those who agree that politics would be better off with more funds flowing to the parties, questions loom about which reforms will serve the parties — and the voters — best.

The conversation about how best to fund the parties will continue. The Brennan Center is sponsoring a lunch event today at the National Press Club. The discussion will be moderated by Matea Gold of The Washington Post and feature Federal Election Commissioner Lee Goodman and Spencer Overton, professor at George Washington Law and president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. 

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