Magazine article The American Prospect

Going after the Big Bucks: Pumping Big Money into the National Political Parties, as Many Now Propose, Would Weaken the Parties in the Long Run and Invite Another Round of Soft-Money Abuses

Magazine article The American Prospect

Going after the Big Bucks: Pumping Big Money into the National Political Parties, as Many Now Propose, Would Weaken the Parties in the Long Run and Invite Another Round of Soft-Money Abuses

Article excerpt

The 2016 election has thrust populist candidates and big-spending outside groups to center stage. These trends further marginalize the traditional role of the national political parties.

Thrown on defense by angry voters, self-financed candidates, and billionaire donors who thumb their noses at the political establishment, party leaders are struggling to reclaim power. A growing chorus of political analysts, election lawyers, and even some progressives argue that the solution is to give parties the same freedom to raise unrestricted, high-dollar contributions that super PACs and other outside groups now enjoy. That, presumably, would partly restore the influence of parties, and serve as a more democratic counterweight to freelance mega-money.

On paper, the notion that parties should operate by the same rules as freewheeling non-party players has appeal. Parties fully disclose their activities, are accountable to and committed to turning out voters, and act as a moderating force on political polarization--so the argument goes. By contrast, unrestricted super PACs and politically active tax-exempt groups are beholden to ideological super-donors and often operate outside the disclosure rules.

"The most influential actors in elections should be those who also have to pay the price of governance," says Nathaniel Persily, a professor at Stanford Law School, whose book Solutions to Political Polarization in America proposes strengthening the parties by injecting them with big money.

But in the real world of American elections, turning parties into super PAC clones would only weaken them in the long run, as well as reinforce the dominance of super-donors in elections. Voters already disgusted over political money would turn their ire on parties aligned with billionaire elites. Political polarization, which reflects deep divisions within the American electorate, would not magically evaporate under new campaign-finance rules. Parties already enjoy more freedom to raise big money, moreover, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling last year and to new rules that Congress has tacked onto spending legislation.

"I think we would see the parties shift their focus from engaging average voters to instead engaging a handful of billionaires," says Paul S. Ryan, deputy executive director of the Campaign Legal Center. "That doesn't improve the parties; that doesn't improve democracy."

The strongest argument against liberating the parties to raise even more big money, however, is the obvious history lesson delivered by the soft-money era of the 1990s. Before Congress banned unrestricted soft money in 2002, the political parties collected tens of millions in unlimited contributions from corporate CEOs, lobbyists, and moneyed interests. The upshot was a series of scandals involving Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers and special favors for big donors that gave the parties a black eye.

LOOSENING THE REINS

To be sure, there's agreement on both sides of the aisle that political party rules are due for an update. Court rulings and changes in campaign-finance laws have almost uniformly cut against the parties in recent decades.

The first blow came with the soft-money ban, best known as the McCain-Feingold law because it was authored by Arizona Senator John McCain, a Republican, and then-Senator Russell Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat now running to recapture his old seat. The 2002 ban did not decimate party fundraising, as some had predicted. Indeed, the parties raised more in hard (restricted) contributions in the election immediately after the ban's enactment than they had under the soft-money system.

But the McCain-Feingold law did trigger a spending spike by so-called 527 groups, a type of independent political organization, named for its tax-code designation, that may collect unlimited contributions. Such groups spent $424 million in 2004, according to the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute. …

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