Modest Proposal April 2013

Campaign Finance: Raise Spending Limits, Increase Transparency

It will mean concessions from both Democrats and Republicans, but it will be good for America.
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Spending by super pacs was not just huge in the 2012 election, it was breathtaking: according to the Center for Responsive Politics, unregulated, often anonymous political donations by outside groups and donors totaled $622 million last year. As things turned out, the super-pac tsunami didn’t have much apparent effect on the election’s outcome. It did, however, hide big-money players from voters. It also forced candidates to raise more money than ever to compete.

A clean trade would ameliorate both problems. First, pass legislation requiring more disclosure. Democrats have proposed just that, in a law they call, creatively, the disclose Act. Second, pass a law raising today’s overly restrictive caps on direct donations to candidates and parties. Allow contributions of up to, say, $100,000 in congressional races and $1 million in presidential races—enough to make fund-raising much easier for candidates. For years, Republicans have wanted to raise contribution limits.

Each idea makes sense on its own merits. Stringent contribution limits do nothing but push money into political back channels, and secrecy does nothing but reduce the information in the political marketplace. Predictably, however, Democrats block the Republican idea because they think contributions corrupt candidates, and Republicans block the Democratic idea because they think disclosure invades privacy.

So trade hostages. Raising contribution limits would direct more money to candidates and parties, which are accountable to voters—thereby reducing the demand for super-pac money. Limiting anonymity would force outside money to step into the light—thereby reducing the supply of super-pac money. The political process would benefit from increased accountability in both directions.

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Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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