Money in Politics

Bradley Smith,

Release Date
October 19, 2012


Democracy and Voting

People worry whenever money and politics mix – but should they? Common wisdom suggests that large campaign contributions can corrupt politicians and disenfranchise regular voters. If this is true, then regulations that limit the role of money in politics should lead to better governance. However, this hasn’t been the case.
Professor Bradley Smith explains why attempts to separate money from politics have failed. As regulations surrounding political contributions have expanded, the edge that incumbent politicians enjoy over challengers has intensified. The real result of these regulations, Prof. Smith argues, is that politics has become “a specialized game for an elite group of people who know the ropes and can manipulate them to their advantage.”
What do you think? Watch the video and share your opinion in the comments!

People get concerned whenever money and politics mix. We’re concerned that large expenditures of money raise the possibility of corruption of public office holders and we’re concerned about what it does about our notions of political equality.
And yet for most of our history, money in politics has been unregulated. Oh sure, there were some laws that go back to the early 20th Century that had some limits in place, but for the most part they were unenforceable and unenforced.
That changed in the 1970s when people decided that if we just regulated more, maybe we could get rid of corrupt politicians. And if we just regulated more, maybe we’d all be just a little more equal when it came to politics.
How’s that worked? Well, by most measures, it hasn’t worked all that well. In fact, we found that since the passage of the Federal Election Campaign act in 1974 (and the various state laws that were modeled on it), the incumbent spending advantage has gone from about 1.5:1 to nearly 4:1. That is, what incumbents spend vis a vis challengers has gone through the roof. We also find that, surprisingly, incumbents win reelection at ever-higher rates and have fewer and fewer bona fide challengers from election to election. And we found that it’s very, very hard for a true grassroots campaign to get off the ground.
Right now the Federal Elections Commission has hundreds of pages of regulations that one has to pour through if you want to know how to run a campaign. And beyond that, there are dozens and dozens – hundreds, literally – of advisory opinions from the Commission trying to explain to people what their obligations are in particular situations. The Supreme Court has noted that there are over 30 different types of speech that are regulated by the Federal Election Campaign Act and the Federal Election Commission regulations.
What does this do to the grassroots people trying to get a campaign off the ground? What would this do to you if you decided you were going to run for office?
The first thing you have to do is hire a lawyer. And then you’d have to hire a skilled consultant. And then you’d have to figure out how you’re going to pay them because very few people can do this as volunteers. You’ve got to come up with some money, you’ve got to come up with somebody who knows these regulations. Increasingly, politics is a specialized game for an elite group of people who know the ropes and can manipulate them to their advantage.
You know, it’s not that long ago that political campaigns would begin, a group of friends would get together or somebody would sponsor a little reception, the candidate would say a few words, and then they’d pass the hat and people would just donate. If you did that today you’d be violating all kinds of campaign finance laws.
So what do we have for our 40-year experiment with all this regulation? Do you think that there’s great political equality? Do you think that politics is less corrupt? Do you think we’ve run the corrupt people out of the political system?
Maybe it’s time that we think about a new approach to politics – which just happens to be an old approach. It’s called the First Amendment.
The First Amendment is there that says anybody can participate in politics. All you have to do is start speaking. All you have to do is get together with your fellow citizens and start talking about what interests you and supporting the candidates that you believe in.
We managed to do pretty well under that system right up until the 1970s. The more we’ve tried to tinker with regulation and then adding more regulation to correct the loopholes in the prior regulation, the harder it’s gotten for average citizens to participate in politics and to feel connected to their government and to feel that they can make a difference.  Maybe it’s time for a new approach.