More Money to Political Parties? Good

Good-government types should stop the hand-wringing. Giving more money to formal party organizations is better than giving it to informal ones.

Big money.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Ah, something to get the Goo Goos all upset: Congress has slipped a provision into the bill to fund the government that would triple the amount of money campaign donors can give to formal national party organizations.  

Mark me as unimpressed, but marginally pleased.

Supreme Court decisions starting with Buckley v. Valeo way back in 1976 have made it impossible to ban big money from politics. But campaign-finance law and, to some extent, other court decisions have steered big money away from formal party organizations such as the Republican National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

This includes the McCain-Feingold ban on “soft money” that, in turn, was only eliminating a loophole that lawyers had figured out to allow money to flow through the formal party organizations.

You’ll read about how this new twist will allow money to return to the “parties.” That isn't quite right. U.S. political parties are complex institutions, and contain both the formal parties and informal networks. On the Republican side,  you could classify Karl Rove’s Crossroads as one of those networks, as well as those big conservative donors who are supposedly trying to clear the field for one candidate, and even Tea Party groups.

So the larger contribution limits that Congress wants won't bring more big money into politics or even more big money into the parties. The measure would just shift incentives for where the money will wind up within the parties.

Generally, experts on party money such as Ray LaRaja tend to believe this is a good thing. Formal party organizations, they argue, tend to be a force for pragmatism and against extremism. I’m not sure how much I buy that claim, but I see no reason why the campaign-finance regime should tilt strongly away from formal party organizations and toward formally independent super PACs and other such structures.

Tilting back some seems on balance a good idea.  And as former Federal Election Commission General Counsel Anthony Herman points out, these new funds would be covered under disclosure laws, unlike some outside money.

Bottom line: Ignore the hand-wringing.  This isn’t going to be a game changer for big money in politics. That ship has long since sailed. Nor is it going to be a significant game changer for political parties. In the end, it should be a marginally helpful reform.

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