Christopher J. Regan: What the media are missing about Joe Manchin
Before considering a better way forward, it’s important to understand why the For the People Act is making so many Democratic regulars anxious. The bill is a sprawling collection of different proposals, and not all of them enjoy universal support. The bill’s redistricting reforms, for example, represent a threat to a number of Democratic incumbents who stand to benefit from partisan gerrymandering in the months to come, which hasn’t escaped their attention. And at a time when left-of-center Democratic candidates are raising prodigious sums from affluent donors living outside their district, many moderates are wary of the bill’s small-donor matching program, which could supercharge the campaigns of progressive primary challengers.
As it stands, the For the People Act aims to encourage small donations to congressional campaigns by providing a sixfold federal-government match to donations of $200 or less. Congressional candidates who opt in to this program would be forced to accept a maximum donation level of $1,000, which is significantly lower than the current maximum of $2,900. The stated objective of the program is to dampen the influence of wealthy donors by reducing the size of the largest donations and multiplying the impact of small ones, making small-donor fundraising a more lucrative proposition
The small-donor matching program, inspired by a similar effort in New York City, sounds innocuous enough. As Richard Pildes of the NYU School of Law has observed, however, there is an important difference between the two programs. While the New York City program matches only small donations made by city residents (and not those made by people living in Palm Beach, Florida, or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, no doubt to the disappointment of the national-fundraising phenom Andrew Yang), the For the People Act does not limit matching funds to in-district contributions. Rather than mitigating the growing tendency of House candidates to rely on out-of-district donors over in-district donors, this provision will almost certainly increase it.
Given that congressional candidates already rely heavily on out-of-district donors, this aspect of the small-donor matching program might seem immaterial. But evidence shows that the rising influence of out-of-district donors has already led House members to be less responsive to their own constituents. In a recent article in Legislative Studies Quarterly, the political scientists Brandice Canes-Wrone and Kenneth M. Miller report that “when the national donor base prefers a different outcome than a representative’s general and primary electorates, overwhelmingly the member chooses the donor-favored position.” This could merely reflect the ideological proclivities of the members in question, whom you’d expect to be more in tune with their like-minded donors than a random assortment of their neighbors. But Canes-Wrone and Miller also found that “the higher the proportion of out-of-district donations a member has received in recent years, the more responsive they are to the preferences of the national donor class” and, relatedly, that “responsiveness to national donor opinion is higher the safer is the district.”