Climate, politics, campaign finance, media criticism

Mann and Ornstein, tilting at a strawman

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After causing a stir with an op-ed called “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem”, longtime purveyors of centrist Beltway conventional wisdom Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann, of the Brookings Institution, followed up with another called “Want to end partisan politics? Here’s what won’t work — and what will”.

In it, they trot out five reforms they say won’t fix Washington and four they say can. However, especially for a column co-written by a campaign finance expert like Ornstein, the segment criticizing public financing of elections displayed a surprising lack of apparent familiarity with the motivations for campaign finance reform.

Here is their segment on why public financing like a Fair Elections system “won’t work”:

4) Public financing of elections will restrain special interests

Certainly, in the post-Citizens United world, the financing of political campaigns is a nightmare — a Wild West of secret big money and a new Gilded Age of influence peddling by special interests.

But full public financing of campaigns is not the answer. We understand the appeal, but short of an unlikely constitutional amendment or a reconstituted Supreme Court placing limits on private money in political campaigns, public funding simply cannot provide candidates enough resources to overcome hugely expensive “independent” campaigns against them by super PACs. Even then, the influence of organizations such as the National Rifle Association, AARP, the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO is not defined simply by the money they spend on campaigns. They also mobilize powerful collections of single-minded members and followers to pressure lawmakers; and they hire former lawmakers or congressional staff members to gain access to power and boost policy expertise on key issues. Campaign donations are a relatively small part of the resources they invest in influencing government.

Whether or not campaign money is the key, restricting the flow of private money in politics has proven devilishly difficult, and the actions of the Roberts Supreme Court and the feckless Federal Election Commission have made it virtually impossible.

This really doesn’t get it. First, here’s a primer on Fair Elections, a form of public financing they are de facto criticizing, so that you can orient yourself. I would love to do a systematic deconstruction of all the problems in these three paragraphs, but time is limited, so here are a few:

1)      Missing the Appeal of Public Financing — Mann and Ornstein say they “understand the appeal” of public financing, but then offer no evidence that they actually do understand what is beneficial about Fair Elections. From this segment, it appears that the only possible reason to enact Fair Elections is to “provide candidates enough resources to overcome hugely expensive ‘independent’ campaigns against them by super PACs”.

So, preventing campaign contributions from buying access to lawmakers? Allowing candidates without connections to the wealthy or big corporations (a.k.a. normal people) to run viable campaigns? Raising the voices of small donors so that they actually matter? Freeing legislators from spending all their time fundraising so that they can, oh I don’t know, legislate? Nope. All unimportant.

2)      Interest Group Influence Is Not a Prima Facie Problem — Interest groups having influence is not an inherent problem. What’s important is whether that influence is pro-democratic or anti-democratic.

Mann and Ornstein say that groups like the NRA problematically “mobilize powerful collections of single-minded members and followers to pressure lawmakers”. Hmm… Large groups of citizens who care about an issue urging their elected representative to vote a certain way and letting them know that this will factor into their choice on Election Day? Sounds a lot like democracy to me. Decisions are supposed to be based on the will of “We, the People”. The problem is when interests have undue influence that is not based on “one person, one vote,” but on the size of the bank accounts backing those interests.

3)      Limits ≠ Public Financing — Despite claiming to be talking about public financing, virtually all that Mann and Ornstein talk about is restrictions on private money in elections. First off, there are three broad categories of campaign finance: disclosure, limits, and public financing. Talking only about limiting the powerful is missing half of the picture. Restoring some semblance of democratic equality requires both preventing a few voices from drowning out everyone else, as well as raising up those whose voices are lost in the current system.

4)      The January 20, 2010 Delusion — Perhaps worst of all is the implication in this piece that American elections were perfectly fine until the Roberts Court came in and mucked everything up with their Citizens United ruling. Don’t get me wrong, Citizens United is an utterly clueless ruling, exhibiting a perverted interpretation of the First Amendment and naivety about how elections actually work. But on January 20, 2010, the day before that decision, American politics was already broken, with big money already dominating and buying results in a big way.

-Kurt Walters


Written by rethoughtblog

May 21, 2012 at 11:40 pm

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