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The Hidden Consequences of Campaign Finance Reform

by Andrew M. Schocket on Mar 22, 2002

Andrew M. Schocket

The campaign finance reform bill passed by Congress will affect not only the influence of money on American politics. By weakening parties but effectively leaving interest groups alone, it will also promote the discussion of issues over party politics but make political compromise even more difficult than it is today.

        In 1787, when James Madison, the Constitution’s greatest architect, was campaigning to get the Constitution ratified as the law of the land, he argued that competition among many interest groups was the genius of the American political system.  The republic’s diversity, Madison reasoned, would prevent political parties from dominating the country for their own ends. But Madison ignored the merits of national parties: the country’s greatest crisis, the Civil War, occurred partly because the two-party system broke down, failing to contain the explosive issue of slavery.

        Today, interest groups compete with Democratic and Republican parties to influence public policy. The current campaign finance bill, by tipping the scales toward interest groups, will encourage political action on individual issues but thwart potential national compromises.

        To reduce big-money donors’ access to and influence over politicians, the legislation strictly limits the amount of money individuals, corporations, unions and other organizations can give to the national political parties. That will also reduce the Democrats’ and Republicans’ total income. The parties will be able to funnel far less money to presidential and congressional candidates than in the past and so have less influence over them. National parties will be weaker.

        Madison feared the rise of national parties, asserting that a well-organized majority could subvert national policy for its own ends or trample upon the rights of the minority. Madison’s hope was that in a republic as large as the United States, the various economic and regional interests would cancel each other out in a national legislature. No single group would be able to monopolize politics.

        He championed the Constitution by arguing that the proposed government’s greatest virtue was its tendency “to break and control the violence of faction,” by which he meant “a number of citizens united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens.”

        One of Madison’s warnings has come to pass: today, party politics often divert politicians from the goal of doing what’s best for the country. But while a decline of political parties in relation to interest groups would help American politicians focus on issues rather than on partisan bickering, it doesn’t mean that they would get more 

        In addition to limiting political donations, the campaign finance bill will prohibit interest groups (such as the National Rifle Association, the Sierra Club and unions) from advertising within 60 days of an election. The bill’s object is to prevent undue influence over politicians by non-party organizations able to use unlimited money in elections.

        However, the Supreme Court will probably strike down this part of the act as unconstitutional. Chances are, the justices will find that restricting what people or organizations can say, print or broadcast at election time would violate the political benefit of freedom of speech: free expression in the discussion of public affairs. The court’s rejection of this part of the law will allow the continued proliferation of interest-group campaigning and advertising. The end result of the law will be to impair parties but leave interest groups untouched.

        The undermining of national parties is a serious matter.  Because of their regional, ethnic and ideological diversity, the parties have nearly always been among the few truly national American institutions. But in the late 1850s, the mostly southern Democrats 
supported slavery’s geographical expansion and the mostly northern Republicans did not. The national parties essentially became regional groups debating the demands of a single interest: that of slaveholders. Because this issue dominated all others, compromise on any became impossible. The ensuing political logjam led one side to the conclusion that the slavery question could be settled only through secession.

        Like slavery, contemporary questions such as abortion and capital punishment defy compromise. Without strong parties with members on either side of these issues, such controversies would dominate the legislative agenda and polarize political debate. National political consensus would be impossible, and so would meaningful legislation.

        Robust, varied parties are as essential to the American political system as interest groups. National parties that serve as umbrellas for many different constituencies increase the possibilities for common ground on important legislation. Major reforms on welfare passed in 1995 and education passed in 2002 were made possible only through bipartisan compromise.

        The campaign finance bill, by strengthening interest groups at the expense of parties, comes with a prize and a price: it will reduce partisan bickering, but at the cost of bipartisan cooperation.

Andrew M. Schocket is author of “Founding Corporate Power in Early National Philadelphia” and director of American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University.