While the series being run by the New Orleans Times-Picayune and WVUE-TV on state campaign finance is marginally helpful, it often leaves readers with misimpressions and misses the obvious reform that would cure the system’s real ills as well as those imagined by the authors.
Over a period of months these media collected publicly-available campaign finance data from 2009-12, essentially duplicating what the state presents already, but added some value in trying to discover among donors common employers and creating an index that can sorted by candidate and geographical area. It then produced several stories highlighting various aspects of the system, hinting that this is in pursuit of some kind of agenda, reform or otherwise.
But while there are no factual errors in the series, the information often is presented in a way that would leave the reader not properly informed about the issue, or with the wrong idea about it. A perfect illustration of this misleading comes from the very title of the series; “Louisiana Purchased.”
No doubt this catchy appellation can draw in the eyeballs, but it is based upon the myth that large campaign donations buy elections and influence. The political science literature is very clear on this: election victories at the federal level have no relationship to money spent, and voting behavior of members on Congress on the floor seldom is apparently influenced by donations (it would seem only when neither a member’s constituents nor his own ideology gives him guidance on an issue then it seems there is association between voting behavior on an issue and money donated by interests allied with that issue). The literature is less voluminous and certain the farther down one goes, but from what we can tell it seems state level elections fairly well follow the dynamics at the federal level and only at the local level does money begin to take on any significance at all and only in some circumstances, because of the scalar differences.
If one understands the dynamics of elections and campaigns, this makes eminent sense. Donors are like investors who want to put money down only on somebody they reasonably think can win; otherwise, you waste resources. Emotion can get the best of you and you’ll plunk it down on someone whose ideology is great but has no chance given other dynamics, or maybe you’ll do it as a favor to an old pal who also hasn’t a prayer of winning, but the vast majority of donations go out of a belief not just in the candidate, but that he can win. And you don’t even have to like the guy’s issue preferences; some give to such candidates as a defensive reaction because they hope they can have access to try to influence him later down the road. They give because they see him as the likely winner, not to make him into a winner.
In other words, money does not create quality in a candidate, but instead quality attracts money. Simply, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear no matter how much money you throw at someone. Regrettably, this is not the impression the series leaves, with its base assumption that donors are trying to find ways to give so much because they are going to influence outcomes.
Or, that they can influence policy once somebody is elected, which is why they may give so much and to all sides. Again, it’s not hard to understand why money seldom buys influence: most donations come because of a community of interest between donor and politician, and, as for the remainder, because of the defensive strategy described above many receive money from all sides of an issue. This makes them a free agent in how they vote; since they must disappoint somebody on an issue regardless of how they vote, they can choose that on the basis of what their constituents, colleagues, or conscience tells them without regard to donors. And they are encouraged to do so because many of the same donors throw them cash time and again.
In fact, there is really only one thing the typical donor can get out of his gift, potential access to the policy-maker. It means the recipient (or his staff) will listen, but it guarantees nothing. Still, being listened to gives one a chance to influence, while not having that opportunity pretty much precludes any opportunity. That’s why they give; to think anything else will come out of it is wishful thinking, and to think that factor alone has any significant or consistent influence over electoral outcomes and policy at the state level is misguided.
However, giving also may serve a couple of other purposes, which the articles do explore. One, mainly seen at the local level, is in no-bid contracting, where a donation can be seen as announcement that the donor’s concern would like to get in on the action. If in these circumstances policy-makers basically “sell” a contract to the highest “bidder” among donors that can create problems.
But this should not be overstated, which the authors find tempting to do. Only small contract amounts are permitted to bypass the bidding process except in emergency situations. Further, they do have to do the job for the money allotted or be subject to public oversight, so those that could get selected for politics ahead of competence would get caught out, to the embarrassment of the policy-makers who authorized their participation. And, any contracts whose values are above a minimal level must go through the public bid process that pretty much removes politics from it all – something the series’ authors do not acknowledge.
The other is in that donations could lead to appointment to state boards. Many of these, of whom many of their members never give a cent to the appointing official(s), have extremely limited power and also impose requirements or vetting processes that deemphasize political considerations. But politics cannot be removed from boards’ operations (as a recent example demonstrates) and thus politics always will be a consideration in appointments, where one of those factors can be donations.
State law prohibits appointments on the basis on pecuniary considerations, although that doesn’t mean that donors won’t think that they should give money in order to be on the radar screen for appointment along with others also ponying up. Problematically, however, the articles overplay this, implying that there’s something wrong about it all. But what is it?
Is it that these appointees who “buy” their way on then do whatever they want? No, as usually there is very high congruence in policy orientations between appointer and appointee, which is the prerequisite far and beyond money in the mind of an appointer regarding any significant policy-making position. Thus, the appointee serves as an extension of the appointer who was put there by the mass public voting. Is it that they’re unaccountable? No, because the appointers are on the hook for their actions of the appointees, which can be exploited at the ballot box in future electoral attempts. Is it that this is a way to generate campaign cash? No, not only because of the risk of being caught illegally making such a trade, but also because of the dynamic noted above that donations arrive proportionally to the quality of the candidate; in other words, if the donor did not think they guy could win, there’s no point in giving to gain consideration for an appointment.
So the authors cannot really tell readers what is wrong about this, only that it looks bad in some sense. Which fits along the lines of a general theme encapsulated in permutations of a phrase that appears repeatedly throughout the stories, that this perfectly legal campaign finance regime permits activities that “to evade the spirit, if not the letter” of the law. This declaration is false, at least its “spirit” portion.
It’s false because the authors are silent on the most crucial aspect of campaign finance, failing to illuminate it to provide the proper context. The system is this way, where despite limits of personal giving individuals can bundle money from others or can give to political action committees and political parties in unlimited fashion, because it is their constitutional First Amendment right to do so. The authors, clearly unversed in this aspect of the issue, claim that allowing political speech through donations through various channels that goes above the individual limits violates what they perceive to be the “spirit” of the concept of limiting donations, showing they are entirely ignorant that to do so would violate the spirit of the Constitution itself, as affirmed lucidly and powerfully in recent years by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Their blindness to this is explained by a persistent theme running through the articles, as voiced in an accompanying editorial, that this campaign finance regime permits a situation where “If a small number of powerful people or groups hold sway over political candidates and public policy debates, the people’s interests will be secondary.” That there are big donors out there, that some get appointed to boards, that some win big contracts through a competitive bidding process and some small no-bid ones, and that some candidates they support win elections are all held out as evidence that the condition exists.
Except that the T-P cannot prove that this is the case in a widespread and consistent manner because it cannot provide proof of the causal mechanism. It does not prove in any way that “powerful people” can “hold sway” that supplants “the people’s interests” – if even the two are not the same thing on any issue. Association is not correlation; indeed, as noted above, the presumed causal mechanisms this kind of argument could rely upon often are disproven by empirical research. This kind of attitude reveals both ignorance of this information and a lack of critical thinking about it.
Now, this doesn’t mean that occasional abuses of the system will not occur, as they do, and that improvements at the margin cannot make it work a little better. Donations reasonably suspect as being illegal could be required to be returned by candidates, more information such as employers of immediate family members could be asked for in disclosure of donations, and more resources could be allocated for enforcement activities. But by no means is this system itself insufficient much less a form of systemic and legalized empowerment of particular interests over others, as the editorial implies, simply because it allows for the exercise of constitutional rights.
Perhaps the inability to recognize this comes from the system’s convoluted nature, which points to the optimal reform for it all that goes well beyond the margins: get rid of any limits on individuals and associations, period, while maintaining full and even greater disclosure. This would actually reduce the money spent in politics, by putting a lot of PACs and political operatives out of business, while making it much easier and extremely simple to trace donors to candidates while adhering to the Constitution.
One suspects, given the tenor and tone of these articles, that the T-P won’t head in this direction for a policy recommendation on this issue, instead preferring limiting free expression of political views as much as possible without running afoul of the Constitution. Which presents the ultimate irony of the whole series: an entity which makes its living because of free speech would want to limit individuals’ ability to engage in that, unless …
… that’s the entire plan, because the more limited the free speech of others are, the more influential media outlets like the T-P become.