Herding Money Back Towards the Parties

At a time when the very idea of campaign finance reform seems archaic, and in any event blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court, Lindsay Lewis of the Progressive Policy Institute (disclosure: I am a PPI senior fellow) offers a possible way out of the trap in a New York Times op-ed: repeal the provisions of McCain-Feingold that sharply limited contributions to political parties, and herd some of that big money back where it can stand for something other than a candidate’s aspirations or a tycoon’s whims or financial interests. Here’s his basic argument:

Big money has always played a role in politics, but the advent of super PACs means that America’s presidential candidates have effectively outsourced their campaigns to the megarich. The wealthy turn over big bucks to super PACs, which in turn make whatever arguments they want, often much dirtier than anything a candidate would want to attach his or her name to….

[C]andidates have become little more than proxies, as the wealthy attack one another on issues in which they have a direct, often financial, stake: Wall Street regulation, climate change, health care and foreign policy. Candidates running for America’s highest office have no control over the potentially billions of dollars being spent on their behalf to stake out positions they may or may not agree with.

But therein lies a potential solution, too. The moneymen behind super PACs may enjoy the freedom to spend money however they want, but in my experience, they would prefer the old system, where at least they knew the candidate was on the same page.

The best way to return to that is to loosen the rules that drove the two apart in the first place: in other words, repeal federal limits on party donations, the one important part of McCain-Feingold that Citizens United didn’t touch. Limits on transfers between party committees and candidates should also go.

It’s hard to see, given current circumstances, what harm these reforms-via-abandonment-of-failed-reforms could do. And they might do so serious good in reconnecting the money which we can’t restrict to parties and candidates that have some minimal reason to pay attention to the public interest, if only to win votes.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.