Thursday, October 16, 2008


On campaign finance

A friend of mine recently asked a friend of his, someone who he describes as “involved in politics,” for advice about how to decide on political donations. A key part of his question is whether it’s useful to donate to a campaign that’s already “rolling in money,” and whether donating “this late in the campaign” matters.

The response suggested considering things in three steps. First, and most obviously, decide whom you want to support from the point of view of ideology and policy. Second, of those who made the ideological cut, consider who has a reasonable chance to win — why spend money on someone who’s polling in single-digit percentages?

And third, consider what they’ll do with the money:

[...] it’s astounding how much money candidates can burn through extremely quickly — particularly for presidential candidates and senate candidates running in expensive media markets like NY, Calif. Donating to most candidates now would help, most likely. But, I would look at any candidate’s latest financial report first. Go to [the Federal Election Commission web site] to see what their cash on hand is. If they are in debt, you can help. If they have a six- or seven-figure balance, they may well end up in a surplus. If your money goes to their surplus, they might use it as seed money for the next race. Or they might give some to other candidates whom you might or might not support. As to DNC and party committees in general, you just need to have faith they will use it in a way you like as you really don’t have control over how it will be used.
It’s certainly not surprising that party committees can use donation money for whatever they want, and for that reason I’d stick with donating to specific candidates. What bothers me here is that the candidates may turn over their surplus to someone else. I suppose it would be unwieldy to try to give a large number of small contributions back to the donors. On the other hand, donors to the campaigns of Mike Huckabee and Hillary Clinton would not necessarily be pleased to have their money handed to John McCain and Barack Obama, respectively.

But perhaps more to the point, the system lends itself to abuse by quiet collusion. Perhaps a close race is expected between Republican Ferdinand Wingnut and Democrat Taxon Spennd. Mr Spennd finds three other Democrats to run against him in the primary, people with varying positions that are more centrist and more fiscally conservative than his. Through the primary season, the four raise money and support, amassing a larger total than Mr Spennd could do on his own, and pulling some Republican support over to the more conservative of the four Democrats.

But just before the primary, the two least popular of the four withdraw, giving their money and support to Taxon Spennd. He easily defeats his remaining “opponent,” who then also throws his resources to Mr Spennd, giving the candidate a significant edge over Mr Wingnut, both in money and in support, compared with what he could have gotten on his own.

It’s undoubtedly illegal, sure. But if it’s done with a quiet agreement among the four, who would know?

And then there’s this:

One last thought — If you give over $200, your name address, occupation, and employer are collected and will find [their] way onto FEC reports. That’s the law. Your friends and neighbors and business associates can look you up by name and see who you gave to.
I found that interesting: I hadn’t realized that the threshold for public disclosure was only $200; I thought it was $2000. There’s an interesting conflict, here, between “free speech” (using the courts’ consistent decisions that donating money is a form of political speech, a characterization I disagree with) and the right to anonymity, or at least to privacy.

I see, for example, that one Ned Leiba (no relation of which I’m aware), a CPA in Stockton, CA, gave a total of $1300 to Ron Paul’s campaign. That Mr Leiba appears to be a partner in his own accounting firm... but what if he worked for someone else? What if his bosses had been Giuliani supporters and vehemently disliked Ron Paul? What if he feared for his job if they learned that he donated to Mr Paul. These small contributions are well below the levels where we really need to worry about special interests... mightn’t the publication of their details create a “chilling effect”?

I’d rather see campaign spending (and timeframes) limited to the point where donations don’t really matter. Barack Obama has raised more than $460 million so far in his presidential campaign, according to the FEC. That’s just an insane amount of money to spend (and it’s not even considering the paid leave of absence he’s taken from his job — remember, he’s a Senator, but he hasn’t actually been doing that job for about half the time he’s had it — in order to run for president). We should not be allowing that much money and time to be spent on political campaigns.

It’s strict spending limits, more than donation limits, that can quell these excesses. And the spending limits have to apply to all political advertising, whether it directly supports particular candidates or not (ads saying “McCain is Wrong” and “America Out of Iraq”, as well as “Vote Obama!”).

Unfortunately, we can’t have any real reform in our campaign spending as long as the courts consider money to be speech.

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