By Chris Adams
David Keating, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, hears all about efforts to “reform” campaign finance and he asks, Why?
Reviewing the literature on electoral competitiveness, public corruption and the flow of money into campaigns, Keating finds no relationship between money spent and important indicators of robust politics or clean governance. Since adoption of the Federal Election Campaign Act in the 1970s, for example, the number of elections with double-digit shifts in Republican or Democratic seats in Congress has dropped. And over the past 40 years, trust in government has dropped as well.
“I think the impact of these contributions is way overblown,” said Keating.
Keating and his center work to promote and defend First Amendment rights to free political speech, engaging in litigation and training designed to ease restrictions on political donations. In a presentation with NPF Paul Miller fellows, Keating said he would like to get rid of contribution limits to campaigns; substantially raise the financial threshold for something being declared a political action committee; and raise the threshold for what constitutes a small donor who doesn’t have to be disclosed (right now, it’s $200; he would raise that to $1,000).
Easing the disclosure limits would make small donors more likely to give and not fear the scorn of neighbors or bosses, he said. Eliminating contribution limits would lead to more big-money donors to candidates – but if one or many donors gave too much, the candidate could face a backlash from voters, he said.
Keating also believes concerns over total spending in elections is misguided.
Total spending in the 2015-16 federal election cycle was $6.3 billion – less than the $15 billion spent on potato chips during the same period, he said, and less than the free media received by presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
He also reviewed “dark money” – the pools of cash that are spent by independent committees to favor a particular candidate but are not required to reveal their individual donors; in the 2015-16 cycle, such spending was less than 3 percent of total spending.
And Keating said the Federal Election Commission gets something of a bum rap. “I don’t like the idea of a Federal Election Commission any more than I like a ‘Federal Newspaper Commission’ or a ‘Federal Media Commission’ to enforce fairness in media,” he said. But, he added, “A lot of the controversy over the FEC is misdirected.”