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Congress Scrambles in Wake of Court’s Campaign Finance Ruling
Posted on Apr 17, 2010
Malbin is one of the experts pushing for this new approach to campaign finance. He looks at the history of Supreme Court rulings on the matter, the failure of restrictive legislative measures to truly stymie the flow of special interest money into elections and politics (there are always ways around restrictive laws, he points out), and the burden on non-wealthy or knowledgeable participants to navigate the sea of complex regulations and concludes that past campaign finance reform efforts have approached the situation from the wrong side.
Along with Anthony Corrado of Colby College, Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute-Brookings Election Reform Project, Malbin is the co-author of a paradigm-shifting report published this year—“Reform in an Age of Networked Campaigns”—that advocates “activating the many” instead of “focusing on attempts to further restrict the wealthy few.” The authors put faith in the notion that “if enough people come into the system at the low end there may be less reason to worry about the top.”
A central proposal of the report’s reform recommendations is a public financing option very similar to the Durbin-Larson Fair Elections Act. But there are also other policy measures for incentivizing small-scale donor participation that could garner wider support in the aftermath of Schumer-Van Hollen.
One is to make broadband access affordable to all. Having demonstrated the profound effect of the Internet and social networking on electioneering during the 2008 presidential campaign, this is something the Obama administration is already working on this with its National Broadband Plan. Alongside broadband access is a policy goal nebulously known as “network neutrality,” which advocates the regulation of Internet providers whose service would possibly discriminate against certain political or issue speech that threatens the company’s interests. These efforts suffered a blow recently with a D.C. Circuit Appeals Court ruling that will now limit the FCC’s authority to regulate Web traffic. However, if policy changes are made to reclassify Internet access as a “telecommunications service” instead of an “information service” then the FCC could regain some of its lost authority.
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But even if stricter disclosure regulations are accepted to be an effective deterrent, they still don’t do anything “to radically change things one way or the other,” Malbin says. According to Malbin, the only ultimately effective counterbalance to corporate and special interest spending in elections is an expansion of the playing field to include “the many.”
For example, Malbin tells me that in most states it would only take 4 or 5 percent of the electorate giving $50 each to introduce meaningful balance to elections for Governor and the State legislature. He has the numbers to prove it. Policy measures as simple as rebates or tax refunds for low-income donors, individual contributions limits to give small-scale donors more weight against the wealthiest, and publicly funded contribution matching that applies only to small donations have all demonstrated promise for successful implementation. A new interactive tool on the Campaign Finance Institute website puts some to the test. Using data from the 2006 election cycle, with the state of New York as an example, if the government matches small donations ($100 or less) at a rate of 3-to-1, it more than doubles the distribution of contributions from this donor group from 4 percent to 10 percent.
Nevertheless, he sees Schumer-Van Hollen—and the likely floor vote on Larson’s Fair Elections amendment especially—as at least a symbolic political gesture. If the Democratic leadership continues forward with corollary efforts—such as for affordable broadband access, network neutrality, and a streamlined electronic disclosure process; and if Members in Congress continue to hone policy proposals and political rhetoric towards incentivizing small donors instead of continuing the endless corporate/special interest regulatory chase, then the future could be brighter than what many cynics would have one believe.
The Internet—and social networking especially—has broken down traditional barriers to accessing information and propounding ideas more thoroughly than any other factor in modern history. The new media elements operative in Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory will only matter increasingly more going forward, regardless of whether the Supreme Court continues to open more doors for corporate electioneering. And even in today’s intractable political climate, measures that supplant what is seen as plutocracy with democracy can be sold to both sides of the aisle (as the presence of moderate figures like Specter and retiring centrist Senator Evan Bayh on the Fair Elections sponsor list suggests). The slowly growing consensus among those who are actually in a position to return balance to American elections bodes well for the voice of the “many,” at least in the long run. But they will likely need political diligence and constant reminders to see it through.
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