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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)