Op-Ed: Dispelling Fears of Campaign Contributions

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Ideology, partisanship and Congress constituency determine policymaking — not campaign contributions, argues a Cato Institute executive who who will be speaking at a local forum about money and politics.

Some time ago, prior to a presidential election, I agreed to appear live on the evening news of a prominent Middle Eastern television network to talk about campaign finance in the United States. I was a bit anxious; it would be challenging to explain American campaigns to people in other countries. I was not prepared for what happened. The first question from the news anchor: “Mr. Samples, isn’t it true that Jews give all the money to presidential candidates and decide who is elected?”
 
Imagine my shock, on live television no less. I had never debated a critic of campaign finance who asserted the old anti-Semitic trope that “the Jews” controlled the government with their money. I managed to deny my questioner’s premise while trying to direct the interview toward other topics. 
 
If you set aside my questioner’s preoccupation with Jewish Americans, she was suggesting that a small group of people with narrow interests use money to determine elections and thereby control policy — in this case, foreign policy. This assertion, in contrast to my questioner’s, is widely believed. But can it withstand scrutiny?
 
It’s true that relatively few Americans donate to campaigns. Not many have a strong interest in politics, and those who do require some discretionary income to support a candidate or cause. 
 
But donors are not unified in purpose or outlook. In 2012, for example, Jewish donors gave significant sums to both major party candidates. More generally, both parties find enough donors and money to win office. The two major parties have raised roughly even sums for their presidential campaigns since 2000.
 
Do donors represent special interests opposed to the common good? Most people, on the right and the left, apply the term “special interest” to any view contrary to their own. Since Americans often disagree, everyone is a “special interest,” depending on whom you ask.
 
Who then represents the common good? The common good — or as close as we can get to it — arises from the debate and struggle during elections and afterwards. We should not decide who knows the common good and then exclude all others from speaking during campaigns. 
 
Speech brings us to money, the second part of my questioner’s assertion. Critics mock the idea that “money is speech.” Their point is that money is property, and political spending should be regulated like all other economic transactions. 
 
Campaign donations, however, are spent on political speech, directly or indirectly through a candidate or party. Governments that restrict such spending inevitably abridge the freedom of speech protected by the Constitution.
 
I wonder whether money really is the issue. Those who usually worry about the corrosive effects of political cash remained largely quiet in 2008 and 2012 when President Barack Obama raised record sums on the way to impressive victories. Perhaps money in itself matters less than the outcome of elections and the policies that follow. 
 
It appears that money determines the outcome of elections. After all, most incumbent members of Congress greatly outraise their challengers, and almost all win re-election. 
 
But appearances deceive. Incumbents have many advantages and are often expected to win re-election, thereby discouraging strong challengers. Weak challengers, in turn,attract few donors. Political scientists have shown that vulnerable incumbents attract strong challengers who have little trouble raising enough money to make a race.
 
Moreover, money does not protect incumbents in difficult elections: Two-thirds of the House Democrats who lost in 2010 outraised their challengers.
 
Finally, the question of policy: My questioner thought campaign cash bought U.S. support for Israel. In everyday life, we exchange money for something —gas for the car, groceries, etc. Isn’t politics like everyday life? Doesn’t money buy policies favorable to donors? 
 
Economists and political scientists have studied the influence of money on policy. They have generally found that once you account for ideology, partisanship and the constituency of members of Congress, money per se has little influence over policymaking. 
 
Congress decides on about $600 billion of spending each year; entitlement spending, set by formulas, takes up the rest of the budget. Campaign spending — and thus fundraising — totals about $6 billion in all elections during a presidential year. Why would so much federal spending be exchanged for so few campaign contributions? It seems unlikely that federal policy is exchanged for donations; there’s just not enough money in American elections.
 
A final point about public policy: My questioner obviously opposed American support for Israel. She thought donor influence delegitimized our foreign policy. But in a deliberative republic, arguments should be about the merits of policies rather than the machinations of the evil ones. That commitment to reasoned argument requires a tolerance — indeed a respect — for those who disagree and for the spending that makes their disagreement heard.
 
John Samples is vice president and publisher at The Cato Institute. He will be speaking at “Money + Politics: Does Money Make Policy?”  the third annual Bernard Wolfman Civil Discourse Forum. The event, free to the community, will be held on April 8 at 7:30 p.m., at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park. Sponsored by the Jewish Exponent, WHYY and The Feinstein Center for American Jewish History, the event will feature the authors of these opinion pieces and will be moderated by WHYY’s Chris Satullo. For information or to register, visit: www.civildiscourseproject.org
 

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