Current limits on money in politics being tested across the country should give reformers hope.
Last Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case challenging the century-old ban on direct corporate contributions to federal election campaigns. That counts as good news in a month that included the Court’s earlier decision to hear a case that challenges the aggregate contribution limits in campaign finance and Obama strategist David Axelrod declaring that he would prefer a system of unlimited contributions with full disclosure. Almost all Republicans, the Supreme Court, and a powerful faction of the Democratic Party now fall somewhere on the spectrum between skepticism and vehement opposition to limits on contributions. The flimsy remains of the post-Watergate system of campaign finance regulation are on the verge of collapse.
Richard Hasen, law professor and proprietor of the indispensable Election Law Blog, argued in Slate last week that there was still hope for campaign finance reform – just not until Justice Antonin Scalia leaves the Court. But there are other reforms currently being tested on the ground that hold out hope for changing the power of money in politics.
Hasen is right, of course, that until at least one of the five members of the Citizens United majority leaves the court by death or retirement and is replaced by a Democratic appointee, the best hope is that it will rule narrowly in cases such as the one involving aggregate contribution limits, rather than using them as opportunities, as they did in Citizens United, to punch holes in the law that are bigger than the cases themselves. He’s also right that expecting a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United (or do various other things, depending on the version) is far less likely to reopen the path toward a reasonable balance of the role of money in politics than a change in the membership of the court.
Hasen proposes that campaign finance reform advocates take the time now “to plan for the next Supreme Court.” We should use the indefinite waiting period to “think more about what a reasonable campaign finance regime would look like” and acknowledge that “conservatives are absolutely right that campaign finance laws can boost incumbents and stifle political competition.”
I agree with Hasen on all of that, even the last points, but I’d go even further: A reasonable campaign finance regime, one that doesn’t boost incumbents or stifle competition, could even be put in place with the existing Supreme Court. (The current Congress is another story.) The thinking he’s proposing is going on right now, and is even being tested, in systems based on the principle of “small-donor public financing.” These systems use some combination of matching funds, tax credits, vouchers, or generous public financing for candidates who show a base of small-donor support. They make it easier for candidates to run who don’t have big-donor support in order to enhance public participation and to ensure that elected officials aren’t entirely dependent on big donors or corporations, whether those donors are giving directly to campaigns or to outside groups.
The public financing systems in Arizona, Maine, and Connecticut, which have been resilient, strongly supported by the public, upheld in the courts, and used by almost as many Republicans as Democrats, fall into this category. So does the generous matching system in New York City that has the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and a growing number of legislators, which can serve as a model for legislation elsewhere. So can Minnesota’s system, which is currently unfunded but which until a few years ago offered a quickly refundable tax credit for small contributions along with a match on the candidate side. All of these systems can be considered part of a broad experiment, and scholars are looking closely at them to see whether they change who runs for office, who donates, and ultimately whether the states’ political processes are more responsive to the public.
Legislation at the federal level has followed the small-donor model as well. Rep. John Sarbanes’ Grassroots Democracy Act, for example, draws on elements from several of the successful state programs, including a refundable tax credit for small donors along with a matching program for campaigns. The Fair Elections Act similarly incorporates a combination of small donor incentives with full public financing. A voucher that would allow every citizen to contribute in the same way that she votes, long advocated by Yale Law Professor Bruce Ackerman who calls them “Patriot Dollars,” and more recently by his Harvard counterpart Lawrence Lessig, is attracting renewed interest as well.