I'll begin this post as I increasingly find myself doing, with a tweet:
I wonder if folks at the @sunfoundation realize they’re creating a system where only billionaires can get elected
That's the question I posed to the Sunlight Foundation, whose good work on government transparency is marred by their vocal support for draconian campaign finance regulations. It's a fair question in light of self-funders steamrolling "career politicians" / "lifelong public servants" (pick your poison) in recent primaries.
Their response on their blog yesterday was a nonsequitur on the DISCLOSE Act. No, my specific beef is not with the DISCLOSE Act but the entire regime put in place the original "campaign finance reform" of FECA more than 30 years ago, and its subsequent bastardization that has given us the kind of influence peddling that the Sunlight Foundation now rails against.
It is this regime of strict limits -- $2,400 per individual to a campaign -- that creates a massive de-facto advantage for self-funders who can pour in anything they want.
In the past, I've noted the weak record of self-funded candidates actually getting elected. And I've noted, in general terms, the drawbacks of said candidates. The Sunlight Foundation's own analysis shows a low, but rising, success rate for self-funders -- from 9.4% getting elected in 2002 to 21.5% in 2008.
But 2010 by any measure looks to be a watershed year for self-funders. Just look at Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina in California, Rick Synder in Michigan, Bill Haslam in Tennessee, possibly Rick Scott and Jeff Greene in Florida, maybe Mark Dayton in Minnesota, and in today's Connecticut primary, quite possibly three self-funded nominees for the top two statewide offices: Linda McMahon, Ned Lamont, and Tom Foley.
There's no doubt that this trend is helped along by public disgust at the current Congress and Administration, and no contesting the fact that the politicians seem to have made such a hash of things that it seems like political novices can do no worse. William F. Buckley's dictum that he'd rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book remains as relevant today as ever. And it's not to say that primaries won by self-funders can't produce a good result (Synder and Haslam -- a current mayor -- seem to be good examples).
But for each Rick Synder, there are other candidates with baggage so great that they wouldn't survive a primary in an instant if they had to raise it $2,400 at a time. Think Linda McMahon, the WWE, and steroids, or virtual nobody Jeff Greene who profited off the very credit default swaps that are at the heart of Florida's real estate collapse.
Though the political winds might be at their back, self-funders have a massive structural advantage: in the context of a campaign, they are the only ones who can exercise their Constitutional rights under Buckley v. Valeo with unlimited contributions to a campaign. (There is surely an equal protection case in there somewhere, right?)
The situation is made worse in states that are models for strict campaign finance regulations and public financing: Florida and Connecticut. In Florida, you can only give $500 a pop to a statewide candidate, but outside political entities who don't disclose their donors openly coordinate with cash-strapped campaigns. In the realm of the truly bizarre, the state party can also subsidize any campaign's infrastructure costs to get around these limits. Connecticut also has public financing and contribution limits, and we may well get an all-self-funder race for Governor today.
Let's look, by contrast, at states like Texas and Pennsylvania, which don't have any contribution limits in statewide elections. Is there a serious case to be made that their system is worse, or more corrupt, than Florida's -- where money is funneled through shadowy outside groups precisely because the ambit of disclosed campaign activity is so small?
In Texas, all major candidates have an opportunity to fund their campaigns at a level appropriate to the modern campaign, thus making the cost of entry for self-funders very high. That doesn't mean they don't try, but they must at least compete on a level playing field because their opponents have the theoretical ability to draw unlimited dollars from elsewhere.
Which gets us back to what the Sunlight Foundation wants to talk about: the DISCLOSE Act. If we actually had a sane campaign finance system, there would have been no need for the Citizens United decision, because this activity would be happening in a fully open and disclosed fashion under federal campaign laws. It is only under a regime of strict limits that clever tricks that hide where money is really coming from begin to take root. PACs, soft money, 527s and the widespread use of 501(c)4's for political activity are all functions of campaign finance "reform."
Paradoxically, it is only when money becomes a scarce resource in a campaign that where it comes from matters most. I for one would much rather have a system where an individual can give a candidate $100,000, fully disclosed, rather than the one we have now where members of Congress have to grovel before industry PAC representatives for 20 measly $5,000 checks.
If there are reform-based objections to this, let's hear them. And let's also hear an answer to threshold question: how are things in Austin, Texas or Harrisburg, Pennsylvania worse today than in Washington, D.C.?