Campaign Finance – Last Lunch Talk of the Semester

Today, I went to my final lunch talk of the semester with Congressman John Sarbanes on his proposed bill – H.R.20 to support citizen funded elections and reduce the power of “special interest” in Washington.

I won’t go into the policy itself too much, as there is a lot written about it. I am generally supportive of the policy goal and think citizen funded elections seems to be the most reasonable way to implement it given constitutional and institutional pressures. The Congressman spoke about his proposed bill as creating a new power base outside of the lobbying machine to pull power away from it, and that that overall strategy was distinct from “containment” strategies that seek to cut the funding off at the source (e.g. through Constitutional amendment, somehow putting limits on SuperPACs). It’s right that money will find its way around any barriers erected to stop it, which makes the new power base appealing.

I think there is a 3rd strategy that might be useful here that does not get as much play in the discussion – simply designing policies in a way to make money more irrelevant. Not foolproof, but perhaps deserving of discussion. For instance, our tax code invites lobbying money to be spent on its provisions because it is so individualized to different industries, with tax credits for these businesses, allowances for these businesses, etc. The complexity brings with it opportunities to shape policy to benefit monied interests. If the tax code were more neutral and simple, it would not be as effective to mold it, and the efficacy of a lobbying dollar would go down. Tough to do, but just another thought. (I remember research that pegged the ROI on a lobbying dollar to something like 200x the money spent – while there is still that kind of benefit to be gained, companies will spend).

I am skeptical of the approach of pushing for this to be made law in the near future. Call me a cynic, but while there are a lot of co-sponsors for the bill, I have a hard time believing it will be passed in the current climate. Congress isn’t likely to vote to make the lives of its members more difficult – lobbying money is hard to swear off. Members are used to pandering to K street and not to their own constituents for money. More importantly, citizen funded elections are likely to reduce the incumbent advantage. I’m sure the statistics may have changed slightly, but a few years ago, it was true that if an incumbent in Congress ran for reelection, they would win 93% of the time in the House, and 83% of the time in the Senate. By shifting the money base back to districts, instead of through the lobbying apparatus, it makes it more likely for new candidates to enter races with funding, and reduces the advantage of being in Washington already. Who would enact a policy that would make it more likely for them to lose their job?

With ‘pilot’ programs showing the efficacy of the policy in more localized elections, the better path may be referendums on the state level that are passed by citizens and not as likely to be stifled by legislative bodies. Congressman Sarbanes was right when he said that voters will begin to put more pressure on this at the Federal level if they see it working well in their own states. That might be the most likely way to push reform through.

Let me know your thoughts!