Question Day: Campaign Finance Floors and Ceilings

Recent proposals to remake political-giving rules appear doomed.
Chief Justice John Roberts Isn't interested in a grand bargain on political money. Photographer: Larry Downing/Pool via Bloomberg

Kal gets Question Day started:

What do you see as the biggest impediments to the "floors, not ceilings" campaign finance reform being implemented? Do you think it could feasibly be part of a "grand bargain" on the subject, where we get:
1) No contribution limits.
2) Full disclosure of donations.
3) $1/constituent for each major party House, Senate, and presidential candidate.

That's the kind of campaign finance reform I'd like to see, and there is some logic to this kind of grand bargain. But we're not going to get it. What's the biggest obstacle? Would that there was only one!

Reformers almost universally don't like private money in politics, so allowing more would be a major stretch for them. Reform opponents, meanwhile, are unfortunately also almost always strong opponents of government spending on most things, so they don't like this either.

Next, partial public financing for congressional elections would be good for challengers. The main effect probably would be to broaden the playing field. Very few incumbents get serious challenges, but giving serious start-up money to the out-party nominee would be a significant incentive for better candidates to get in. It's pretty hard to get incumbents to vote for something that would make their re-election more difficult.

All of that was true 10 years ago. Alas, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts makes the grand bargain impossible. That's because those who want unlimited contributions and expenditures, perhaps even without disclosure, now can be reasonably confident they'll get their way without having to make any compromises. So if it was a pipe dream in the past, it's even more of a chimera now.

I continue to think it would be a good money in politics regime, for what it's worth. I don't worry about the rich buying elections under these rules because money yields diminishing returns in electoral politics: That first $1 million in a House election is worth a lot more than going from $5 million to $6 million. Moreover, raising money from small donors is a lot easier, provided there's a fully engaged campaign. Partial public financing, that is, shouldn't just provide a floor, but should help serious candidates rise considerably off the floor, and incumbents would wind up with a lot more money that doesn't really help them much.

When it comes to the fear that raising money from rich donors is inherently a problem, I don't think there's convincing evidence that campaign money makes much of a difference. The wealthy have greater access and influence than the poor, but I think it's unlikely those advantages vary a lot depending on campaign-finance rules. At any rate, it's not as if there's any chance of driving big money out of politics completely, even under the relatively tougher restrictions allowed by the landmark Buckley v. Valeo Supreme Court ruling of 1976.

I would like to see more serious challenges to incumbents, even if most would still fall short. I'm not sure that the defeat of more incumbents is necessary for good democracy, but I am confident that compelling incumbents to treat each re-election campaign seriously is very good for democracy.

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