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Strengthen the Parties to Strengthen Democracy

As committed supporters of campaign finance reform, we have a perhaps unexpected suggestion: it’s time to change the law to make it easier for parties to raise money.

Cross-posted from The Hill.

Donald Trump’s brash campaign for the Repub­lican pres­id­en­tial nomin­a­tion has thrown into relief just how power­less the offi­cial polit­ical parties can seem in today’s polit­ics. The Summer of Trump—and of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—has promp­ted hand­wringing about the major parties’ lack of control over the pres­id­en­tial nomin­at­ing process. But the eclipse of parties in Amer­ican polit­ics is about much more than the rise of these two men. 

Iron­ic­ally, in fact, Trump and Sanders may be the two major candid­ates least tied to the real force push­ing parties aside: the explo­sion of unlim­ited and often secret nonparty spend­ing made possible by Citizens United. As commit­ted support­ers of campaign finance reform, we have a perhaps unex­pec­ted sugges­tion: it’s time to change the law to make it easier for parties to raise money. 

Until recently, spend­ing by formal party commit­tees, while dwarfed by candid­ates’ actual campaigns, routinely outstripped that of all other play­ers. It was the parties’ import­ant support­ing role, which they some­times abused, that promp­ted reformers to push so hard for limits on their fundrais­ing.

Now, however, both candid­ates and parties have to compete with super PACs and other even more shad­owy entit­ies that the courts have permit­ted to raise unlim­ited campaign cash—and the party commit­tees are plainly the biggest losers. In 2014’s most compet­it­ive Senate races, outside groups outspent them by a ratio of almost four-to-one.  

So why is this a prob­lem? Some comment­at­ors argue that the waning of parties has helped fuel today’s polar­iz­a­tion and grid­lock, because party lead­ers no longer have the finan­cial muscle to encour­age moder­a­tion and comprom­ise in the halls of govern­ment. They recom­mend signi­fic­antly rais­ing, or even elim­in­at­ing, party contri­bu­tion limits, to level the play­ing field.

Others dispute that party lead­ers are weak, however, even suggest­ing that those lead­ers are them­selves the main agents of grid­lock. They argue that direct­ing more money through the parties would thus do little to remedy dysfunc­tion and would come with other costs, like increased corrup­tion. 

But avoid­ing polar­iz­a­tion and grid­lock is not the only good reason for want­ing strong organ­ized parties. The parties are engines for polit­ical parti­cip­a­tion by ordin­ary citizens. Parties have well-estab­lished infra­struc­ture through which support­ers can engage in civic life—in­clud­ing by volun­teer­ing and attend­ing party events. The parties also have histor­ic­ally played a key role in regis­ter­ing large numbers of voters and getting them to the polls. And parties’ internal struc­tures are far more demo­cratic and trans­par­ent than that of the aver­age super PAC run by a hand­ful of consult­ants and mega-donors.

That does­n’t mean the parties ought to be completely dereg­u­lated. Completely repeal­ing party contri­bu­tion limits and other fundrais­ing restric­tions risks making party commit­tees into little more than super PAC clones. And the offi­cial parties are hardly pure as driven snow. The reforms of last decade and those that came before were put in place follow­ing a history of abuse related to large party dona­tions, from the Teapot Dome scan­dal, to Nixon-era miscon­duct, to the soft-money excesses of the 1990s. These risks have not disap­peared.

For these reas­ons, as we explain in a new paper, we advoc­ate a middle ground between complete dereg­u­la­tion of party fundrais­ing and the current status quo. A center­piece of our proposal is to offer a small-donor match­ing program to simul­tan­eously amplify the voices of aver­age citizens within the parties while direct­ing more resources to party commit­tees. The model we have in mind would be similar to New York City’s system for candid­ates, under which small contri­bu­tions are matched with public money, encour­aging broad parti­cip­a­tion. 

It may also be time to reevalu­ate some of the federal rules limit­ing how parties raise and spend private contri­bu­tions. For example, current law places strict limits on how much parties can contrib­ute to their own candid­ates—in­clud­ing through coordin­ated polit­ical spend­ing. Provided both parties and candid­ates are subject to reas­on­able, fully-enforced contri­bu­tion limits, we see little reason to prevent them from work­ing together. 

We also support rolling back some federal limits on state and local party activ­it­ies. These limits were inten­ded to thwart circum­ven­tion of federal law, but have ended up stifling party polit­ics at the grass­roots level. And we recom­mend consid­er­a­tion of whether to raise the thresholds at which the names of party donors must be disclosed, which could encour­age more people to make modest contri­bu­tions.

Most of these propos­als will not be enacted before next year’s pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Still, we and many others across the ideo­lo­gical spec­trum agree that stronger parties will lead to a health­ier demo­cracy, with greater buy-in from aver­age citizens—and less oppor­tun­ity for a single candid­ate suppor­ted by a couple wealthy back­ers or a personal fortune to domin­ate an elec­tion.

(Photo: Think­stock)