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May 13, 2014 8:42 AM Catch of the Day: Futile Campaign-Finance Regulation

By Jonathan Bernstein

The Catch goes to Seth Masket at the Monkey Cage. He has a great post on the futility of campaign-finance regulation to date. The reaction to regulation has generally been to find new legal ways to shovel even more money into campaigns. As Seth points out, one of the consequences is that the complex mechanisms that are used to work around the law make disclosure meaningless.

I strongly agree. I’m for floors, not ceilings, plus “meaningful” or “viable” disclosure, but I haven’t always defined those terms. The idea is that radically simplifying the system, allowing everyone to give what they want (plus partial public financing to provide the floors), would make it easier to see what people are doing. It’s not clear it would have an electoral effect (would people change their votes if they knew where the money was coming from?), but it’s worth doing.

Two points on Seth’s piece. First, he’s too euphemistic when he says that “donors are paying close attention to the laws to figure out how to get their money to the campaigns that need them without running afoul of authorities.” What he means is that complex campaign-finance laws open a significant market for expert campaign-law attorneys. That’s a dead loss for the political system, money just bleeding into higher overhead. Anyone who supports complex regulations needs to weigh that loss against whatever supposed benefits regulation has brought.

Second, in this post, Seth appears to be ambivalent about total spending. He did better in an earlier piece that described campaign spending as “essentially a short term civics education program funded voluntarily by the nation’s wealthiest people.” Politics is important, and therefore spending on it is a good thing; my only real complaint about spending levels is the distribution (too much to presidential and other high-profile elections, not enough down-ballot), not the amount.

At any rate: Nice catch!

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.

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