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'Misunderestimating' Campaign Finance Reform

Lobbying reform and campaign finance reform — and public campaign financing in particular — have the ability to change the rules of the game in our democracy.

  • Jonathan Backer
March 8, 2012

In an article in the New York Review of Books, Washington Post reporter Ezra Klein discusses two recent books about corruption — one, by Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig, about how campaign contributions foster political corruption and second, by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, on how lobbying does the same. Klein argues that partisan polarization is more responsible for policy outcomes than the influence of money or lobbyists. Consequently, he suggests that campaign finance reform and more stringent lobbying rules would produce only modest changes in the way Washington works.

But it’s not clear that any set of campaign finance reforms or anti-lobbyist regulations would restore trust in government or ratchet down partisan polarization. Such policies, if they worked, would likely have more modest effects: a bit more trust in government, maybe, and a bit less of a reliance on lobbyists, hopefully.

It’s also the case that Abramoff’s form of corruption and Lessig’s theory of corruption do more to illuminate the workings of small issues in American politics than big ones. In that, they’re like quantum mechanics. Abramoff’s methods are fine for winning favors for small clients, and Lessig’s model goes a long ways toward explaining why politicians might listen when Hollywood signs up some high-powered lobbyists to tighten copyright protections, but neither is much of a help when it comes to the major clashes in American politics. You need a theory of general relativity to explain the big stuff. And that theory is partisan polarization.

Klein’s analysis narrowly focuses on the influence of money and lobbyists on legislators’ votes. In this, he overlooks the broader role of such forces in shaping the content of laws. Roll call votes represent only a fraction of legislative activity. One could imagine that money and lobbying play a much more substantive role in a committee’s markup of a piece of legislation. They also play a critical role in setting the legislative agenda, which probably impacts an industry’s bottom line more than the final up or down vote. Countless pieces of legislation never make it to the floor of either congressional chamber because of special interest influence. Still more legislation never gets an up or down vote in the Senate because of the mere threat of filibuster. Preventing legislation from getting a vote is simply a subtler approach to defeating legislation.

Lobbying reform and campaign finance reform — and public campaign financing in particular — have the ability to change the rules of the game in our democracy. Their impacts would be felt at every stage of the legislative process, not just at a final roll call vote. Moreover, while they may not singlehandedly combat distrust in government or partisan polarization, they are two among a constellation necessary policy prescriptions — including redistricting reform, voter registration modernization, and filibuster reform — that are necessary to revitalize and improve our democracy. No single reform has the capacity to fix Washington.