Want Political Change? Get Rid of Campaign Finance Regulations.
With election season well underway and political tensions heating up, everyone’s attention will be glued to the TV or their favorite political website for the next few months. Political ads will inundate TV and internet media as political action committees (PACs) and official campaigns beg for votes and donations while trumpeting their preferred candidates and exposing their rivals’ political misdeeds. It’s the same game every election cycle, but now it’s got a digital flavor to it just to keep up with the times.
Political ads are no casual endeavor. In the 2018 election cycle, candidates spent $4 billion in local broadcast, cable, and online ads. According to the Television Bureau of Advertising, campaigns, PACs, and other organizations spent over $3 billion on local broadcast television. The Center for Responsive Politics discovered that a total of $5.7 billion was spent on all federal races in the same election cycle when factoring other non-ad expenditures. To put this in perspective, nearly $2.9 billion was spent on congressional elections a decade prior. In a matter of decades, congressional campaigns nearly doubled in terms of expenditures. If these trends hold up, future general elections are bound to break spending records.
Like almost every activity in America these days, you can’t just waltz in, set up a campaign organization, and launch campaign ads. Thanks to campaign finance regulations, political activists are forced to wade through a regulatory maze to set up their organizations and make sure they’re running properly throughout the election seas. It’s a delicate tightrope to walk, to say the least. One false move doing paperwork or conducting a transaction or donation on the campaign trail could mean jail time. Just ask some of former congressman Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign advisers or Dinesh D'Souza about the process. It’s not pretty.
What Campaign Finance Regulations Actually Do
The typical campaign finance regulations involve placing limits on individual contributions. Superficially, this kind of makes sense. Who wants big money in politics? It seems so simple, but if politics has taught us anything, it's that regulations marketed as silver bullets wind up being disappointments. The real question we should be asking is: who benefits? Most legislation ostensibly directed at campaign finance turns out to be sweetheart regulations that legacy incumbents draft to protect their electoral interests. Grandstanding about working for the public interest aside, politicians still work to preserve their interests and keep outsiders from unseating them.
As a matter of fact, campaign finance regulations compel candidates to receive small sums of money from a large pool of donors. The incumbents possess a first-mover advantage with their name recognition, established fundraising networks, and political machines that help get out the vote during election season. These incumbency advantages become even more pronounced the longer they stay in office.
The up and comer is at a massive disadvantage in terms of a fundraising and political network, and third parties are already playing catch-up thanks to states' ballot access rules. Combine that with the campaign regulations they must comply with and their paltry political networks, and third party efforts almost look futile right off the bat.
Political parties largely benefit from these regulations, since they play a pivotal role in creating them. In our current system, as in many others across the West, there exist diverse factions within a single party. Some of these factions do not enjoy support from party leadership. In some scenarios, party leaders might even undermine legislative firebrands if they get on their bad side. Because of the costly efforts to get both elected and reelected, candidates and recently elected politicians often end up working for the political parties or becoming beholden to interest groups. It’s the path of least resistance and one of the principal reasons we have politics as usual.
You’ll see some upsets here and there, but they are the exception rather than the norm. Once in office, legislative gadflies find themselves playing a losing game, as they are surrounded by other politicians who are completely controlled by moneyed interests and can sleep well at night knowing that campaign regulations—among other barriers—will prevent them and their establishment colleagues from being unseated. Hence the almost cyclical frustration many political rabble-rousers face when they get a champion elected only to walk out decades later in disappointment after not getting anything meaningful done, legislatively speaking.
The civil liberties aspect of campaign finance regulations cannot be overlooked either. As previously mentioned, there exists a real threat of jail time for organizations and individuals who slip up when it comes to campaign finance compliance. Many states have ethics commissions (an ironic name, to say the least) that are always looking for some political deviant to make an example of.
Additionally, the Federal Election Commission’s bureaucrats are constantly on the lookout for the slightest misstep a federal candidate makes. We should also never forget about the IRS, which has a long history of harassing nonprofits and candidates alike. Altogether the state dominates electoral affairs, which creates a chilling effect on free speech and places major financial burdens on candidates.
Can Decentralization Address Campaign Finance?
The frustration with contemporary politics is understandable. It seems like a fruitless endeavor after watching the established order repeatedly get reelected. But addressing this problem will require critical thinking. No band-aid-like campaign finance reform will be the cure. The cost of running a campaign is already high. Adding in regulations will impose further costs in terms of time and money, which everyday people with contrarian beliefs often don’t have. Making it into the political big leagues is already wishful thinking. How do we solve this campaign finance dilemma?
Ryan McMaken offers a thought-provoking way to handle campaign finance. He believes decentralization is key to making political campaigns more affordable. Federal races are simply too expensive for the common man to participate in these days. For certain states, such as Texas, which have large urban media markets, a prospective challenger would have to possess a vast war chest to even stay competitive.
In Texas, the 2018 Senate race saw a total of $125 million spent. This is the reality of heavily populated states which continue to grow without any corresponding increase in representatives or adjustments to the constituencies they represent. I know that the thought of more politicians may make the most ardent of libertarians shriek, but the Founders never envisioned a country of 300 million plus people that spans from Maine all the way to the Emerald Coast. It makes sense to consider increasing the size of the constituency.
It shouldn’t shock us when people get frustrated with the prospects of advancing any kind of constitutionalist, libertarian, or dissident candidate that breaks out of the current political consensus. The regulatory deck is stacked against them. Ideas are great and all, but there’s a massive regulatory anchor that keeps many contrarian voices submerged. Politicians can rest easy knowing that they are protected by campaign finance regulations.
That’s why bringing about real political change requires unorthodox tactics. Rolling back campaign finance regulations and expanding the constituencies would open up new avenues for agitators frustrated with our present system.