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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Yglesias: Campaign Finance Reform Plan Has Merit, Needs Tweaking

Most fair-minded observers would agree that Democrats are seriously screwed by the present system of financing political campaigns, all the more so after the Citizens United decision. Reform proposals, post McCain-Feingold, go nowhere in congress, thanks to GOP intransigence.
Writing in The American Prospect, Matthew Yglesias, has an interesting critique of Lawrence Lessig’s new book about campaign finance reform, “Republic, Lost.” Yglesias, author of “Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats,” calls Lessig’s book “must-reading for anyone who’s tuned out the campaign-finance debate,” but adds:

Lessig moves beyond quid pro quo corruption of the sort that typified the Gilded Age and recently ensnared such congressmen as Duke Cunningham of California and William Jefferson of Louisiana. Taking a broader view of the problem, Lessig develops a concept of dependence and independence that draws on the Founding generation’s obsession with the alleged corruption of Parliament at the hands of a monarchy that dispensed pensions and offices to compliant representatives. As part of this analysis, Lessig cites the anthropological concept of a “gift economy” to argue that a person can become indebted to another without any explicit agreement of a quid pro quo.
…Without anyone necessarily being bribed, Lessig argues, a dangerous and unseemly economy of influence has arisen in Washington that renders legislators dependent on lobbyists and all too independent from their constituents or the national interest.
Lessig takes on the model of lobbying as “legislative subsidy” developed by political scientist Richard Hall and economist Alan Deardorff as an alternative to the naive lobbying-as-bribe model. Legislators come to Washington passionate about several issues. Quickly, though, they come to depend on the economy of influence for help in advancing an agenda. They need the policy expertise, connections, public-relations machine, and all the rest that lobbyists can offer. Since this legislative subsidy is not uniformly available, the people’s representatives find themselves devoting more of their time to those aspects of their agenda that moneyed interests also support. No one is bribed, but the political process is corrupted.

Yglesias notes how members of congress live high on the hog as a collateral benefit of the myriad fund-raising activities conducted for their campaigns. He discusses another problem with Lessig’s proposal:

But for all that Lessig impresses with his wide-ranging and theoretically ambitious critique of the status quo, the solution he puts on the table is much less compelling. He argues for the creation of a publicly funded, clean elections system. Every voter would get a $50 “democracy voucher” and would be “free to allocate his or her democracy voucher as he or she wishes.” In addition, “voters are free under this system to supplement the voucher contribution with their own contribution–up to $100 per candidate.” To be eligible for the voucher money, a congressional candidate would have to agree not to accept any money beyond the $50-and-$100 system, meaning “no PAC money and no direct contributions from political parties.”
…It’s extraordinarily difficult to get money out of politics in a manner consistent with freedom of association and expression. Nothing in this proposal would prevent vast sums from being raised and spent by nominally independent groups with an interest in campaigns…Such spending would have a dependency–inducing influence regardless of the technical independence of the spending from the candidate.
The virtue of the voucher scheme is different. If enacted, it would flush more money into campaigns and make it easier for challengers to get off the ground in both primaries and general elections. Making electoral politics more competitive is a desirable outcome, though it might also make members of Congress more attuned than ever to opportunities for post–congressional employment.

Yglesias notes that interest group support of the Affordable Care Act produced no Republican votes, and suggests a broader set of remedies:

A sounder approach would acknowledge that the American political system suffers from multiple ills. Arizona, a state that’s adopted an admirable clean-elections campaign-finance law, is hardly free from special-interest influence. Instead, the combination of low-paid, part-time legislators with term limits and meager staff resources (in the Arizona House, some members get a half-time secretary) makes members dangerously dependent on the “legislative subsidy” that savvy lobbyists can provide. Problems of this kind are endemic to American state government, and Congress isn’t immune to them. Better ethics rules at all levels should be paired with efforts to professionalize legislative and staff work and provide better pay. Stronger leadership and tighter party discipline, though often bemoaned, also tend to reduce interest–group power relative to ideological agendas…Under conditions of strong discipline, partisan and ideological considerations trump the economy of influence on high-profile bills.
…Some of Lessig’s strongest passages remind us of the early candidacy of Barack Obama, who impressed some and frightened others with his emphasis on good government and procedural reform. That figure disappeared after Inauguration Day, replaced by a cynical dealmaker ready to do what it took to get a few key pieces of legislation over the finish line. Under the circumstances, it’s striking that he’s gone on to spend so much of his administration hamstrung by an increasingly broken Congress. Republic, Lost is a powerful reminder that this problem goes deeper than poor legislative tactics or bad character…

Yglesias concludes, “As progressives contemplate how best to pick up the pieces after recent setbacks, a robust agenda to change how business gets done in the capital needs to be part of the picture. This time, we’d better mean it.”

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