Response to Tom Mann on Campaign Finance Reform

Tom Mann has responded to earlier criticisms by Bob Bauer and me of an op-ed by Norman Ornstein and Anthony Corrado. Bob responds on our behalf here. Bob has done well as usual; I respond here on my own behalf.

Mann argues that the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) did not devastate the political parties. But I did not argue that it had devastated the parties. Tom concedes my original point: earlier trends suggest the parties have fewer resources in 2006 than they would have had without BCRA. I argued that this shortfall for the parties cost the Democrats 15 to 20 seats in 2006 since they were not able to fully exploit the national shift in public mood. Tom says they had enough money to contest the races. My claim about the effects on the party came from Rahm Emanuel and other party leaders. Here’s evidence from the New York Times [$$$] quoted in an earlier post:

Stan Greenberg, the Democratic pollster, …said that Republicans held 14 seats by a single percentage point and that a small investment by [Howard] Dean [head of the Democratic National Committee] could have put Democrats into a commanding position for the rest of the decade…” There was a missed opportunity here,” he said. “I’ve sat down with Republican pollsters to discuss this race: They believe we left 10 to 20 seats on the table.”


Mr. Emanuel said … : “More resources brings more seats into play. Full stop.”

Emanuel’s statement supports my claim. Tom himself cites the testimony of Terry McAuliffe, a Democratic party leader, in his post on another matter. If McAuliffe counts, so does Emanuel.

Here are some other arguments from Tom Mann (in italics) and my replies:

BCRA did not ban any political ads; it stipulated that electioneering communications may not be funded by corporations and unions.

Well, if an “electioneering communication” is a type of political ad and a law stipulates that corporations and unions may not fund them, then the law has banned the funding (and hence, the existence) of a certain kind of political ad. Part of the struggle over BCRA was whether these ads were “issue ads” (and hence protected by the First Amendment) or like contributions to campaigns (and hence, illegal because or earlier bans on contributions by labor unions and corporations). BCRA defined the ads as contributions by calling them “electioneering communications.” The Supreme Court acquiesced in that definition. The ads have disappeared from campaigns. The regulation of money does appear to eliminate speech. Sen. McCain himself thought disclosure of the supporters of the advertising would be enough to stop the ads (i.e. the political speech). Or so he said on the floor of the Senate.

There is another part of this story. These issue ads were irritating and threatening vulnerable members of Congress. In response, Congress declared funding of the ads illegal. That strikes me as striking evidence that campaign finance regulation protects its authors, i.e. members of Congress.

The amount of political advertising in 2006 supports the view that BCRA did not constrain vibrant free speech.

This is an interesting confusion. If we define vibrant free speech as “the amount of political advertising in 2006,” then indeed BCRA did not constrain vibrant free speech. But if BCRA constrained spending on political speech and other electoral activities, then it did restrict free speech, even if we had lots of speech otherwise. “Vibrant” here means something like “enough” political speech. Thus BCRA may have restricted some speech, but the society had enough for its purposes.

There is a parallel here to an argument made some years ago by the law professor Owen Fiss. He argued that the free speech of some disfavored speakers might be restricted to foster a “rich public debate,” which he took to be the goal of the First Amendment. Hence, in Fiss’s view, the First Amendment empowered government to suppress speech for the higher goal of a “rich public debate.”

Tom Mann is not explicitly arguing for suppression of speech. But he is implicitly reading the First Amendment as expressing a social goal rather than a restraint on government. Once we have “enough speech,” we should not be especially worried about restrictions on some speech.

This point supports Tom’s general observation that arguments about campaign finance are dependent on political theory. As I argue in The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform, progressives have come to see the First Amendment as empowering government to regulate and suppress speech in pursuit of larger social goals. But the First Amendment simply restricts the government’s power over speech. It does not say the government may limit freedom of speech if we have enough speech during an election, or to assure that we have the right kind of speech for a “rich public debate.” It just restrains the government. (In the interest of accuracy, I should point out that not all of Tom Mann’s allies mentioned in his post are progressives; Michael Malbin is not for one).

Party soft money was not diverted to 527s. The research on this by the Campaign Finance Institute, reported in The Election After Reform, is crystal clear.

Mann may be correct here. If so, the parties were deprived of huge sums in 2006.

Samples judges BCRA by the arguments made in Congress by some of its supporters. I don’t doubt that some wanted to reduce the overall amount of money in campaigns and eliminate negative advertising. But those were not built into the design of the law.

This implies that the Senators who explicated the law on the floor of the Senate and later voted for BCRA did not understand its purposes or how it would work. We should wonder about the validity of a law if the people who enacted it did not understand its goals or its design. But, then again, the goals many senators assigned to BCRA were not constitutional. (You can read about the many purposes of BCRA in the Introduction to The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform).

Tom Mann finishes up by arguing that my “libertarian framework” leads me to ignore reality. (Similarly, Ornstein and Corrado branded critics of BCRA as “ideologues” in their original Washington Post piece). Here’s what Tom is doing rhetorically: Libertarianism is a kind of religion that believes things without proof. We – that is, Tom Mann and company – are pragmatic and moderate, trying to grapple with complexity in pursuit of the common good. So who are you going to believe? The simple-minded fundamentalist or the scientific centrists?

This is a neat rhetorical gambit often deployed by self-described moderates. But there are several ironies here.

First, Tom’s allies in the “reform community” (though not Tom himself, or any of the people he mentions) are not especially scientifically-minded. For example, I have been told that such self-described reformers have bitterly criticized political scientists for not finding evidence of corruption caused by campaign contributions.

Second, The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform is filled with attention to empirical work and some original analysis of data. I do not simply assert that campaign finance law protects incumbents, I discuss data that is consistent with that hypothesis. I also mention data that is not consistent with that hypothesis (for the latter, see pages 231-2). I also deal with empirical work that suggests contributions do influence congressional behavior (see pages 98-100). I do discuss the political theories behind the campaign finance struggle. And yes, you can get all that for $22.04 plus shipping!

Note also that I wrote above, “Mann may be correct here.” But read the book and then decide for yourself whether Tom is correct about my attitude toward empirical evidence.

Third, policymaking about campaign finance itself has not been anything like the empirically-minded model Tom sets out. The basic federal campaign finance law was passed in 1974 (and amended a bit shortly thereafter). Its regulations were justified as a means to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption. Over the next three decades studies consistently cast doubt on the influence of contributions on policymaking. Other studies indicated that campaign finance rules had little to do with trust in government. Were the laws changed in response to these studies? For example, were contribution limits raised to keep up with inflation or even increased? In fact, the limits were left at their 1974 levels, thereby becoming ever smaller through the effects of inflation. The appearance of corruption rationale, for its part, remains a frequently-cited justification for more campaign finance regulations. To be sure, studies have been used to justify more regulation of money in politics. Studies that suggest liberalization, however, are ignored by judges and legislators. In science, that’s called selection bias. In politics, it’s called business as usual.