No Available Fix for Politician Paranoia

I highly recommend a post by Ezra Klein about money in politics. He’s following up on an earlier item he did about money in the 2012 election cycle being overhyped; today he’s taking on criticisms of that one. It’s excellent: he doesn’t back down on the basic point that the “campaign finance community” (as he puts it) overstates, and often dramatically overstates, the importance of campaign finance.

One topic he covers, however, is one where I’ve become increasingly pessimistic over time: the way that raising money eats into the lives of elected officials. It’s something that Mark Schmidt raised in response to Klein’s original item, and it’s correct. It’s absolutely ridiculous for Members of Congress to have built for themselves an expectation that they should spend four hours a day raising money.

(By the way: we have good reporting that such an expectation exists, and good reporting that Members spend way too much time raising money…but I have to admit I’m pretty skeptical of this four hours a day business. Do they really do that, day in, day out? Or do most of them reluctantly do a lot less (although still enough to cut way too much into their real jobs), but exaggerate it for the reporter’s notebook? Again, I’m not denying that it’s a big deal; just questioning the specific claim).

I used to believe that a campaign regime of floors-not-ceilings would help; by allowing candidates to raise money in larger chunks, they could reach their fundraising goals in far fewer hours of work. And given diminishing returns (that is, in that more spending produces relatively fewer and fewer votes), the incentive to just use the same time but raise more money wouldn’t be all that high. I think that was, alas, wishful thinking. The evidence seems to be that they all raise whatever they can, even if it’s a waste of their time. Moreover, if floors-not-ceilings succeeded in bringing viable candidates to more districts, even more incumbents would be even more obsessed with the theoretical possibility of a future plausible nominee who had to be scared away by building even larger warchests.

The only things I can really imagine that would de-escalate all of this, other than full public financing, would be ways of reducing the pain of losing re-election. But surely that’s a cure worse than the disease; we want our Members of Congress to be paranoid about losing. We just want them to deal with it by working hard to represent their districts, not by working the phones to scrape up every last available dollar for their campaigns.

Oh, and apart from the other reasons I don’t like full public financing, it’s a pipe dream anyway, both politically and, with any plausibly foreseeable Supreme Court, Constitutionally.

All of which leaves me stumped about what to do with this very real problem.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.