Withdrawal of McConnell’s campaign finance rider only short-term reprieve

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) failed to slip into this year’s omnibus budget bill an amendment that would have relaxed restrictions on coordination between political parties and candidates, offering wealthy donors one more opportunity to circumvent existing contribution limits to candidates. Unfortunately, it is only a matter of time before Congress or the courts open this door.  Recently, the Republican Party of Louisiana won a court victory that virtually guarantees the issue will make its way to the Supreme Court within the next few years.

“Small-d” democrats need to wake up to the fact that money in politics is here to stay and that chasing after effective campaign finance reforms is a waste of limited resources.  Money tends to find its way into the political process through regulatory loopholes. Citizens United has unquestionably multiplied and expanded the loopholes available. Still, the bottom line is that few experts believe campaign finance legislation has ever been particularly effective, even in the hands of a more liberal Supreme Court.

{mosads}The only way to counterbalance the influence of political donors is to empower the electorate. The problem is that this will require much more than devoting resources to get-out-the-vote drives focused on Election Day. To provide an effective counterweight to the political influence of wealthy interests, the electorate that shows up on Election Day must be informed, attentive and demanding, and remain so when the campaign lights go off and the media turn away. This requires organization.

Restoring democratic responsiveness requires investing in both short-and-long-term efforts to organize ordinary Americans though membership-based civic associations capable of encouraging informed electoral participation. Indeed, in 2004, a Task Force of the American Political Science Association attributed the solicitude of government officials to the preferences of wealthy citizens in large part to their increasing organizational advantage as compared to the middle class. It pointed to the fact that private-sector unionism has radically declined, and lower-income Americans today are only about a third as likely as the affluent to belong to an organization that takes a stand on public issues.  Equally importantly, many of the civic and political associations that remain are ineffective at empowering ordinary Americans. Based in Washington, D.C., too many depend on litigation and lobbying to promote their policy goals.  Promoting broad, informed electoral participation has fallen off their agenda.  

Thankfully, this political strategy is less of a pipedream than seeking constitutionally permissible, effective campaign finance reforms or passing a constitutional amendment to permit the regulation of money in elections.  Most importantly, the political strategy might work.  The same cannot be said for the legal strategy.  Even if meaningful campaign finance reforms were passed, so long as the public remained politically inactive and uninformed, the super wealthy would continue to influence the policies enacted, and perhaps more significantly those shelved, through lobbying and other constitutionally protected efforts, while ordinary Americans basked in their imagined victory.

Abu El-Haj is an associate professor of Law at Drexel University’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law.

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