Commentary

Spending is Not a Problem

By Patrick Basham
This article originally appeared in USA Today on October 27, 2004.
Spending a lot of money on campaigns is good for our political health. The criticism that there is too much spending ignores the positive contribution that campaign spending makes to our representative democracy. Higher spending on literature, advertising and grassroots activity produces both an electorate that is better informed about politics and politics that are more competitive.

But we don’t even spend that much money on our elections. At all levels of campaigning, we spend just $15 to $20 per eligible voter. This is less than we spend per capita on yogurt or potato chips.

A frequently touted solution to the spending “problem” is public financing. Maine is on the cutting edge of the national experiment to publicly finance candidates. So far, the results don’t look good. While cheaper campaigns and enhanced electoral competition were predicted as a result of these reforms, the evidence in Maine indicates the opposite.

My analysis of recent Maine elections finds that the adoption of public financing hasn’t resulted in more competitive elections than under private funding. Rather than make incumbents more vulnerable to challenges, public financing helps to entrench incumbents. Despite limits on campaign spending by incumbents, the advantages of holding office are almost impossible to overcome.

The Maine model offers few benefits for a scheme largely funded by taxpayers. Maine’s lesson for the nation is that a government trying to foster cheaper, more competitive elections through public financing will be disappointed with the results while taxpayers will be discomforted by the cost.

Those focused on the source of private donations also may favor stricter public-disclosure requirements. Disclosure, however, imposes very real costs such as the impact on one’s privacy, and potentially damaging personal and professional ramifications. Disclosure may be justified overall, but stricter requirements are not. Current law requires disclosure for $200 donations, a ridiculously low amount. No one suggests influence is bought for a couple hundred bucks. Raising the disclosure limit to $1,000 makes sense.

A better-informed electorate and increased political competition are worthy goals for a representative democracy. Fortunately, higher campaign spending makes both goals more attainable.

Patrick Basham is an author and senior fellow at the Center for Representative Government, part of the Cato Institute in Washington.