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Public finance, continued

First, a bit of background.  You can start by reading my most recent Insight Kansas column where I question the benefits of Senate candidate Charles Schollenberger’s recent proposal to move to government-run and financed campaigning.  A few days ago, Schollenberger responded.  After reading Schollenberger’s response, I think it’s important to keep talking about this issue that sounds so good in theory but works so poorly in practice.  I will address Schollenberger’s response point by point.

I must point out, however, that contrary to Professor Rackaway’s statement, I have not called for Kansas to change its campaign laws. I have called for changes in federal laws affecting congressional elections (U.S. House and U.S. Senate).

Point well taken, Mr. Schollenberger.  Let’s also be clear here: at no point in your initial editorial on State of the State Kansas did you specify at which level you wanted to implement the new regulations.  The clearer you are, the less I need to assume.

We have already had a version of publicly funded elections in our presidential elections for some time now.

Indeed we do.  And that system is irrevocably broken.  Ask John McCain how effective the Presidential public campaign fund was for him.  The only reason McCain took the public fund was to avoid the backlash he would get as a proponent of the last poorly-thought-out campaign finance law change, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.  To be successful today, a candidate must opt out of the public fund as George W. Bush and Barack Obama did.  Not a good standard to set a proposal by.  I might also add that the only good thing about the presidential fund is that it is voluntary: if I want to contribute, I can.  If candidates want to take the money, they can.  But we also have the option not to.

I find that Professor Rackaway’s assertion that campaign donations by special interests have no effect on legislative behavior is beyond belief. Would Professor Rackaway have us believe that these campaign contributions are given randomly to candidates out of the goodness of corporate hearts?

This is the area that creates the greatest problem for those of us who study politics to get across.  It’s an easy sell to the public that legislators are bought and sold by interest groups.  A public hungry for justification to disengage from a complex political process is a willing audience for messages that tell them they are powerless against well-funded interest groups.  Schollenberger’s message is a prime example of the rhetoric that makes people feel they have no control over their elected officials, creating the very problem he claims public finance will solve.

Schollenberger oversimplifies the campaign donation process.  Schollenberger asks if contributions come randomly or out of charity, as if those are the only other rationales for donating to candidates.  Interests, be they large conglomerate corporations or local labor unions, give for the same reason individuals do: they have a preferred candidate they want to win.  The insidious implication from Schollenberger’s next paragraph makes the wrong-headed assumption clear:

I believe our present system of private campaign funding creates a pay-to-play culture where you have to have money to be involved in politics.

In other words, as an interest if you want a member of Congress to vote for a bill all you have to do is give that member a campaign contribution and voila, you get your vote.  The member’s ideology doesn’t matter, just the contribution.  It’s open vote selling to the highest bidder.  But wait!  The federal government limits contributions to $5,000 per election.  So now the bidding stops at the same place for every group.  As an interest, you cannot simply offer more money than another group. If Schollenberger was right, then you could see a pattern pretty easily: normally pro-life candidate votes 100% with American Right to Life until NARAL gives them a $5,000 check and suddenly that 100% voting record changes.  We can track those contributions through the FEC’s website and compare them with votes, which is exactly what Steven Ansolabehere did in the article I referenced in my initial column.  I’d suggest Mr. Schollenberger read Ansolabehere’s article.  Yes, it’s a thick academic article, but his findings are a real eye-opener.  Members do not show a pattern of bending to the will of big-money contributors.  In the example I just gave, why in the world would that member of Congress trade their vote for a campaign contribution that will hurt them in the end?  Can you imagine Jerry Moran or Todd Tiahrt trading their vote to NARAL?  Of course not.  Members know that trading their vote for an interest group’s favor is often more ballot box disaster than campaign booster.

Schollenberger’s core question is still out there, though: what does campaign money buy?  Again, sorry to burst his bubble with facts but there’s evidence from David Austen Smith.  In 1995, Austen Smith wrote an article in the American Political Science Review (note that it’s a paid link to an academic database) that gives us an answer right in the title: Access.  That’s right, access.  Let’s dig into that idea a little deeper.

Members of Congress are busy people.  The demands on their time are so significant that they need to limit who has access to them.  Constituents and fellow members of Congress get top priority.  After that, an interest might get in the door, but generally only one.  Which one, you ask?  How about donors?  Austen Smith tells us that members of Congress have their minds well made up in advance of most votes.  Only occasionally do they go into a vote without knowing how they will decide.  So those few times when they are unsure, they are looking for backup.  And that’s where interest groups come in.  A member of Congress will give access to a donor interest, granting them the opportunity to persuade the member to vote their way.  But in the end, the member of Congress makes the final decision.  Both Ansolabehere and Austen Smith show with evidence that campaign contributions protect the existing friends of interest groups more than buy votes.  In other words, a smart interest group tracks a new member’s votes for a while before contributing.  If the member of Congress is a friend, then the interest starts contributing to protect that member.  But even if the money went away, the member’s votes wouldn’t change.  Bought and paid for?  No.  Subsidized?  Yes.  But using terms like “pay-to-play” is wrong and irresponsible, ginning up public anger rather than giving it a truthful and constructive outlet.

And contrary to Professor Rackaway’s statements, there are studies showing that publicly funded elections have benefited public participation by increasing the number of women and racial minorities holding office because they have more equal access to campaign funds.

That might be true, but it’s not contrary to my statements.  Female and minority participation may be boosted by government-funded campaigns.  But how many campaigns?  And how did money make those candidates win?  What’s unfortunate is going to the Public Campaign website, as Schollenberger links to in his article, provides absolutely no hard evidence of the success of government-administered campaigns.  After a thorough scan of every page on the website, I found no links or data to back up Schollenberger’s claims of minority and female advantages in government-run finance schemes.  I’d love to see the evidence, especially because I’ve provided independent evidence for every statement I’ve made.  I make my students cite sources, Mr. Schollenberger, and I’ll ask you to do the same.  If I were a Senate candidate right now, I would overreach and claim Schollenberger was calling me a racist and feign offense at that unwarranted personal attack.  Since I’m not, let’s move on.

Now comes the pandering:

Another example of the perils of the present system was amply demonstrated several years ago in the financial collapse of 2008. Banking and financial interests have been among the biggest contributors to elected federal office holders.

These donations were high in the 1980s and 1990s when Congress deregulated the financial industry, and this deregulation was a major cause of the stock market crash of September 2008.

The public lost $7 billion in household wealth in that crash. It would have lost a lot less if the New Deal regulations concerning investment banking had not been repealed by legislators who took special interest money and did the bankers’ bidding.

Let’s recap: Banking industry donations encouraged deregulation of the banking industry that led to the $7 billion economic crisis of 2008 to today.  The real cause of the collapse was a mortgage industry let loose to offer risky loans by Congress not by banking interests but by folks like Charles Rangel of New York (not exactly a favorite of the banking industry) who wanted to see more people buying homes rather than renting.  It’s easy to blame the banks, who were willing to accept the freedom to offer more loans, but they weren’t the prime mover behind the change in regulations.  Bill Clinton campaigned on creating an ‘ownership society’ where more homeowners meant a more prosperous nation.  Does Schollenberger simply believe that was the result of an elaborate profit-motivated conspiracy among the banks?  If so, we’re moving into some dangerous territory.  That’s where it seems Schollenberger wants us to go: look at the last sentence making legislators look like puppets to big money.  By manufacturing a crisis, he hopes we won’t think about the negative long-term effects of his damaging proposal.

It’s easy for us as a public to write our politics off using arguments like Schollenberger’s.  If big money controls politics, why should we even bother to participate?  In fact, that’s what an increasing group of citizens are doing.  The problem is that they’ve gotten the cause wrong.  If interests do control politics, it’s only because we as citizens don’t use our voices as much as we should.  Individuals contribute significantly more to campaigns than interests do.  And interests don’t vote.  All a campaign contribution is good for is the outreach to voters it pays for. As I’ve already mentioned, a member would never accept a campaign contribution that would end up highlighted in an opponent’s ad.  Members are bought and paid for by their constituents: the problem is, most of us give our support away for cheap.

In 2002, Steven Ansolabehere wrote another article that makes the point sharper.  The article is called “Why is there so little money in politics?”.  Thing about that: the amount of money in politics is actually quite small.  Every source of money: interests, people, parties, give much less money than they used to AND the amount of money spent actually seems very small when you consider how much money candidates spend per voter.  Currently, all candidates for U.S. Senate in Kansas have raised $4.883 million.  With 2.8 million Kansans, that works out to $1.73 spent per citizen.  $1.73 per person spent on direct mail, television ads, traveling the state, and staff.  Why does the public have a problem with spending that little money for such an important election?  It’s probably because they’ve been sold a bill of goods by candidates like Schollenberger.

Why wouldn’t Schollenberger want public funds?  Compared to his Republican counterparts, Schollenberger is getting beaten badly.  Moran and Tiahrt have each raised over $2,000,000 for their campaigns.  Schollenberger’s FEC database today (July 13) showed $106,821 in receipts.  Schollenberger’s campaign has raised 1/20th that of the Republican hopefuls.  So what does he have to lose by recommending a government-run and funded campaign scheme?  Schollenberger, along with any candidate who wants, can dip at the public trough for money to run a campaign that the public has said they do not want to participate in by not contributing to him.  Better for candidates like him to have their fund raising done for them by the government.

Let’s also remember here that at no point in his column does Schollenberger refute any of my points about the competitiveness of elections or incumbent return rates.  His assertion that women and minorities get electoral benefits from government-financed campaigns has to be marginal since incumbents do not lose at a greater rate under so-called ‘public’ campaigns.   So even if a few women and minorities win where they wouldn’t otherwise, is it worth making the many other existing problems worse to achieve that goal?  There’s an irony in the one white man in a primary with a white woman and African-American man promoting how a government-financed campaign would help minorities win office.

In my original column I said that Schollenberger’s proposal had its heart in the right place but its head in the clouds.  Its heart remains the same, but I think the head might now be somewhere else, where it’s considerably darker.

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About Chapman Rackaway

Associate Professor of Political Science at Fort Hays State University. Hays Daily News and Insight Kansas columnist. Co-author of American Government: Politics and Political Culture (5th Edition).

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