More Money, More Problems: How Do We Fix Campaign Finance?
In the upcoming 2016 election, campaign finance is quickly becoming a campaign issue. Donald Trump has repeatedly brought voters amusing images of his fellow Republican candidates begging the Koch brothers for donations. On the other side of the aisle, Bernie Sanders has made headlines by denying money from Super PACs and still raising $26 million through grassroots support. While the national conversation about campaign finance is loud and contentious, it lacks a global perspective. We are neither the first nation to face this challenge, nor will we be the last.
Nations around the world have found varied and distinct ways to respond to money in politics. Countries such as France, Canada, and Japan have stringent spending and contribution limits to prevent outside influences in elections. Sophie Menard ’19, who grew up in Paris, said in contrast to private donations, public funding makes up the majority of France’s campaign finance system. She said, “The state gives a set amount of money for candidates so that candidates are on equal footing from the start.”
This concept of public funding is all but foreign to the United States. The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) of 1976 put federal public funds in place, and presidential candidates have used public funds in every election cycle from 1976 to 2008. In recent years, however, due to the enormous number of funds needed to run an effective campaign, the small amount provided by the bill border on irrelevancy to presentday candidates. The dwindling influence of FECA is evidenced by the fact that the 2012 presidential election was the first since the start of the program in which no public funds were spent. Many, including Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia Law School and Chair of the Conflicts of Interest Board of the City of New York, believe that national public funding could be revived if more funds were given to the system to allow candidates to run an effective campaign without relying on large private donors. The question still remains: is public funding a desirable solution?
In contrast to the national scale, local public funding programs in the United States have continued to be relevant today. New York City’s matching funds program, established in 1988, has been cited as highly successful by proponents of a nationally scaled program due to its candidate participation rate of 90 percent. Participating candidates receive six dollars from the city for every one dollar a private donor contributes, with the condition that they adhere to strict contribution limits. But in an interview with The Politic, Bradley Smith, Chairman of the Federal Election Commission from 2000 to 2005, criticized the system. “Although it works in the sense that it garners candidate participation, the public funding does not lead to better governance,” he said. He cited New York City’s “high rate of government corruption, oneparty politics, and high rate of incumbency,” adding that campaign finance reform must be examined for its “meaningful effects and changes in government” rather than for its success as a separate system.
Richard Briffault, on the other hand, believes that public funding brings about the meaningful change to which Smith alludes. He told The Politic, “The success of public funding is not seen in the competitiveness of elections, but rather in the contestation of elections. In state legislature elections without public funding, there is rarely even another candidate. When public funding is introduced, that tends to end.” In elections with public funding, such as those held in New York City, Briffault argued, “Incumbents don’t lose less, but they are contested. This contestation forces incumbents, even if they win, to be more responsive to their constituents.” He also argued that public funding makes it possible for more New Yorkers to run for office. “Neighborhood candidates are able to run due to New York’s generous 6:1 funding ratio. The higher turnover rate among elected officials is even greater evidence of a more democratic system.”
The Brennan Center for Justice, a thinktank based in New York University Law School that focuses on democracy and justice, echoed Briffault’s views. According to a 2012 study commissioned by the Center, public funding increases political participation among citizens: 90% of census block groups in New York City contained small donors, many representing lowincome minority areas. This trend is rare in most elections; in New York State legislature elections, only 30% of census block groups had small donors.
The next question is one of logistics: can public funding be adapted to work on the national scale in today’s tumultuous campaign finance environment? According to Briffault, in theory, it can. “Public funding could work in the U.S. on a national scale because it has worked before.” He pointed to the “six electoral cycles from 19761992 in which public funds played a large role in presidential elections.” However, because FECA only offered public funding in presidential elections, Briffault cited many new obstacles that could hinder the application of such a program in congressional elections. “What level of funding ought to be?” he asked. He alluded to the fact that some congressional district elections require much more money than others in order to fund a competitive campaign and questioned how the government would reconcile these variances among districts. Additionally, the U.S. faces an obstacle that many Western countries do not: competitive primaries. Briffault said, “Most western countries have party elections as opposed to candidate elections. In the U.S., the primary is the most competitive election in many districts.”
The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IIDEA) has also reported that lax contribution limits in many western countries, including Denmark, Sweden, and Germany, exist because of strong party politics and discipline in parliamentary forms of government. In addition, according to IIDEA, limits in many Western countries occur in other forms, such as Denmark’s complete ban on television advertisements, the single largest cost of campaigns in the U.S. Briffault also explained, “Limits in these forms [including limiting election campaign seasons or banning certain forms of advertising] would be virtually impossible in the U.S. due to Citizens United and First Amendment rights.” Bradley Smith, the former FEC Chairman, agrees with this reasoning, citing “the unique political situation in the United States, that on top of our vibrant rights, we adhere to explicit rights and frameworks outlined in the Constitution.”
Expanding on the question of constitutionality and whether or not the policies of other countries would fit those of the United States, Smith said the first and only requirement of any campaign finance limit is that it fit the tenets of the constitution. “If new policies are in place, they must adhere to the First Amendment specifically, which gives the right of Americans to participate and donate to political campaigns as they desire,” he said. Briffault, on the other hand, believes in more flexibility. He said, “The First Amendment has limitations with good justifications…. Campaign spending does implicate the first amendment, [but] protecting democracy and the right to vote justifies limitations.”
Nevertheless, considering the restrictions of campaign finance reform in the wake of Citizens United vs. FEC, Briffault cited “the need of levelup campaign finance policies,”using tactics such as increasing voter registration and using public funding to force candidates to listen to their constituents. The landmark court case ruled in favor of unlimited contributions and led to the creation of billion dollar super PACs in the 2012 Presidential election. Briffault emphasized that in order to adhere to the policy restrictions put in place by Citizens United, lawmakers need to rethink the traditional forms of campaign finance, such as contribution limits, and suggested that expanding public funding could be the solution. He does, however, credit the U.S. campaign finance system for its uniquely stringent disclosure requirements compared to other western countries, which force candidates to reveal who funds their campaigns. Smith also agreed with this statement, explaining that other countries, such as France, tend to view disclosure as a privacy harm whereas the United States views it as necessary to democracy. The strong disclosure laws already in place could strengthen a renewed national public funding program.
The question of what to do with campaign finance reform lies in what we want our country to be, and where we want these changes to lead. Do we, as Americans, have the right to support our candidates in a democratic process? Does our right infringe on others? Can public funding be revived in a political climate with unpredictable changes in campaign spending? These questions must be answered by our presidential candidates as they struggle to balance constitutionality and equal representation. But if international trends or even our past policies are any indication, public funding could be the future of campaign finance reform in the U.S.