Why Campaign Finance Reform Is a Bad Idea

On his website, Sen. Bernie Sanders has a page dedicated entirely to "getting big money out of politics."  Condemning the "disastrous" ruling in Citizens United and the wealthy elite for allegedly usurping the democratic process and stifling the voices of the ninety-nine percent, the Senator from Vermont begins by quoting Abraham Lincoln, saying that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

I tip my hat to the former Burlington mayor; not only is he quoting one of America's greatest presidents, but he's addressing head on the very real issue of corruption in American politics.  Beltway insiders have indeed benefited from wealthy special interests groups at the expense of the average voter, and consequentially, Washington has become largely unresponsive to the demands of the people.

That said, Sanders's plan is both nocuous and shortsighted.  Top-down campaign finance reform is a poor approach to eliminating corruption for two reasons.

First, it's ineffective.  As an example, the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, better known as the McCain-Feingold Act, was lauded by many as a much needed check on the use of soft money and issue advocacy ads in federal elections.  Even prior to Citizens United's blow to McCain-Feingold, however, donors with deep pockets were hardly constrained in their ability to support the causes and candidates of their liking.

They could have, for instance, skirted federal per-candidate and per-political party contribution limitations by establishing multiple political action committees.  Or they could have supported a candidate indirectly through "527" groups, tax-exempt organizations that are partly political.  They could have also used their vast business networks to fundraise on behalf of candidates, or donated to 501(c)(4) organizations that lobby sitting lawmakers on legislation significant to their interests.

In other words, campaign finance reform is ineffective because it is essentially an unwinnable battle against human innovation and creativity.

Second, Sanders's version of campaign finance reform is self-defeating.  When lawmakers try to out-legislate human innovation, they engage in an embarrassing game of whack-a-mole.  As innovation exploits loopholes, bureaucrats create new regulations aimed at correcting the perceived deficiency and eventually weave a web of complex election law of which the only consistent byproduct is increased transaction costs associated with running for office.

Assume for a moment that no candidate is interested in gaming the system and that all instead are interested only in running an honest, law-abiding campaign.  To do so in a system with heavy federal campaign finance regulation, the candidate will need to hire professionals, including lawyers and accountants; educate campaign staff; set up information systems to monitor compliance; and establish safeguards to prevent violations – all in addition to running the campaign itself.  An opportunistic executive on Wall Street will have easy access to these things; a middle-class concerned citizen on Main Street will not.  Thus, the system will once again favor the wealthiest among us.

In reality, there is only one virtually fool-proof way to combat corruption in Washington.

Like any other human endeavor, the interaction between constituents and their elected officials is a function of basic economics.  Unsavory though it may be, access to the power of lawmaking is a commodity, and influence is the currency.

As power becomes more consolidated in a centralized government, the amount of meaningful access to that power (i.e., supply) necessarily decreases.  As the "supply" decreases, the demand for access increases, driving up the "price" to a level affordable only to those with the most influence to peddle.  Put simply, this is why your congressman does not return your phone calls unless you are, like, a big deal.

If we want Washington to be truly responsive to our needs, we need to reduce the price of access to lawmakers by decentralizing government and dispersing power.  By returning balance to the system, our institutions will be drastically more removed from the reach of corrupt special interests, and our nation will be conducive to more honest government.  Until we reclaim the federalist republic originally envisioned by the Framers – one that denies amalgamated power any sanctuary – Washington's deafness to the needs of the people will continue, and even the most talented Gettysburg Address-wielding democratic socialist will be powerless to save us.

Thomas Wheatley is a law student at George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, Va.  Email him at twheatl2@gmu.edu.

On his website, Sen. Bernie Sanders has a page dedicated entirely to "getting big money out of politics."  Condemning the "disastrous" ruling in Citizens United and the wealthy elite for allegedly usurping the democratic process and stifling the voices of the ninety-nine percent, the Senator from Vermont begins by quoting Abraham Lincoln, saying that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

I tip my hat to the former Burlington mayor; not only is he quoting one of America's greatest presidents, but he's addressing head on the very real issue of corruption in American politics.  Beltway insiders have indeed benefited from wealthy special interests groups at the expense of the average voter, and consequentially, Washington has become largely unresponsive to the demands of the people.

That said, Sanders's plan is both nocuous and shortsighted.  Top-down campaign finance reform is a poor approach to eliminating corruption for two reasons.

First, it's ineffective.  As an example, the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, better known as the McCain-Feingold Act, was lauded by many as a much needed check on the use of soft money and issue advocacy ads in federal elections.  Even prior to Citizens United's blow to McCain-Feingold, however, donors with deep pockets were hardly constrained in their ability to support the causes and candidates of their liking.

They could have, for instance, skirted federal per-candidate and per-political party contribution limitations by establishing multiple political action committees.  Or they could have supported a candidate indirectly through "527" groups, tax-exempt organizations that are partly political.  They could have also used their vast business networks to fundraise on behalf of candidates, or donated to 501(c)(4) organizations that lobby sitting lawmakers on legislation significant to their interests.

In other words, campaign finance reform is ineffective because it is essentially an unwinnable battle against human innovation and creativity.

Second, Sanders's version of campaign finance reform is self-defeating.  When lawmakers try to out-legislate human innovation, they engage in an embarrassing game of whack-a-mole.  As innovation exploits loopholes, bureaucrats create new regulations aimed at correcting the perceived deficiency and eventually weave a web of complex election law of which the only consistent byproduct is increased transaction costs associated with running for office.

Assume for a moment that no candidate is interested in gaming the system and that all instead are interested only in running an honest, law-abiding campaign.  To do so in a system with heavy federal campaign finance regulation, the candidate will need to hire professionals, including lawyers and accountants; educate campaign staff; set up information systems to monitor compliance; and establish safeguards to prevent violations – all in addition to running the campaign itself.  An opportunistic executive on Wall Street will have easy access to these things; a middle-class concerned citizen on Main Street will not.  Thus, the system will once again favor the wealthiest among us.

In reality, there is only one virtually fool-proof way to combat corruption in Washington.

Like any other human endeavor, the interaction between constituents and their elected officials is a function of basic economics.  Unsavory though it may be, access to the power of lawmaking is a commodity, and influence is the currency.

As power becomes more consolidated in a centralized government, the amount of meaningful access to that power (i.e., supply) necessarily decreases.  As the "supply" decreases, the demand for access increases, driving up the "price" to a level affordable only to those with the most influence to peddle.  Put simply, this is why your congressman does not return your phone calls unless you are, like, a big deal.

If we want Washington to be truly responsive to our needs, we need to reduce the price of access to lawmakers by decentralizing government and dispersing power.  By returning balance to the system, our institutions will be drastically more removed from the reach of corrupt special interests, and our nation will be conducive to more honest government.  Until we reclaim the federalist republic originally envisioned by the Framers – one that denies amalgamated power any sanctuary – Washington's deafness to the needs of the people will continue, and even the most talented Gettysburg Address-wielding democratic socialist will be powerless to save us.

Thomas Wheatley is a law student at George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, Va.  Email him at twheatl2@gmu.edu.