Why the Campaign Finance Provision In the "CRomnibus" Might Be a Good Thing

Democrats and good government groups bemoaned a policy rider in the "CRomnibus" signed into law last week that raised the amount that a single individual can give to each national party's three committees (National Committee, Senate Committee, and House Committee) to $1.5 million per two year cycle. 

Good government groups viewed this provision as yet another blow to the effort to limit money in the political system, and another way for the wealthy to exert influence in the political process. 

I'm in favor of reducing the amount of money in the political process, especially special interest money. Members of Congress would be better able to focus on governing if they didn't have to spend most of their time raising money. I'd like to go to a system of public financing. 

Nonetheless, based on my research, I believe that the provision added to the "CRomnibus" might actually be good for American democracy, and for those of us who would like to see more functional government. 

During the course of the 225+ interviews that I've done for my dissertation, I've had several policymakers and staffers tell me that one thing that empowered the fringes in each party was the reduction in the power of the party committees after the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill became law. 

Reducing the power of the party committees enabled the fringes to take over the party messaging and candidate selection (indeed, my research shows how much power talk radio can wield in primary elections). The party committees focused on finding candidates that had broad appeal. By contrast, many outside groups and ideological media have no such desire. They prefer likeminded candidates who will pursue their preferred agenda. 

Thus, a primary process without the party committees as a major force in candidate selection has enabled the fringes to assert themselves, and as a result, we have seen increasing amounts of polarization in Congress. 

Now my research also demonstrates that even if the parts of McCain-Feingold dealing with party committees ceased to exist entirely, the rise of alternative media in the internet era would have made it harder for the party apparatuses to control candidate selection. Talk radio, cable TV, and the blogosphere are powerful fundraising forces. They can do a great deal to boost the fundraising and name recognition for insurgent purist candidates who three decades ago would have had far less of a chance to triumph. 

Even so, I think that enabling the party committees to raise greater sums of money might give them increased power to influence candidate selection. The result might be less extreme lawmakers who are more interested in compromising and legislating. 

This hypothesis fits with another conclusion about which I've blogged—the "cleaner" and more transparent the legislative and election processes become, the more it may actually hamper legislative productivity and the ability of the system to address society's problems. 

That's not to say that I'm endorsing corruption or a return to smoke filled back rooms. But we need to understand that well intentioned policy changes to make legislators more accountable have unintended effects. Accountability means accountability to the most engaged Americans, who tend to be either more extreme in their views, or special interests trying to protect their bottom lines. 

The "CRomnibus" is case in point. Largely the product of secret negotiations between House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rodgers (R-KY) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), it contained lots of provisions unrelated to funding the government. Some, frankly, in my view, were terrible ideas. 

Nonetheless, the bill also accomplished some good things, such as funding the government for an entire year (which should not require such herculean efforts, but apparently does in today's political climate), which provides agencies with certainty and lets the government operate more efficiently. 

This legislation likely would not have been possible had the negotiators been forced to work in an entirely transparent way where special interests could have nitpicked each provision. Indeed, in reading Todd Purdum's excellent book on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 over the weekend, I was reminded again how important secret negotiations are to pass legislation that benefits the general welfare of the country, but might anger special interests and extremists. 

We must find a way to balance transparent and open government with productive government. If not, we may end up with permanently gridlocked government incapable of dealing with even the most basic societal problems because of our divisions.