At a Brookings Institution event this morning, four of the most prominent mainstream scholar/advocates of campaign finance reform set forward a new approach -- albeit one that might seem familiar to Prospect readers. Tom Mann of Brookings, Norman Ornstein from AEI, Michael Malbin of the Campaign Finance Institute and Tony Corrado of Colby College proposed a break with traditional approaches to campaign reform that are based on limiting contributions and outside spending. As Mann put it, "Instead of further trying to restrict the wealthy few, we seek to activate the many."
They propose public funding of campaigns based on "multiple matching" for small contributions (as in New York City's acclaimed system), lower contribution limits as a condition of public financing, tax credits and rebates for small donors, as well as related reforms such as universal access to broadband with civic engagement as a goal. The argument is bolstered by a thorough analysis of the small donor revolution in recent elections, and comparative study of states that have such matching and tax-credit systems.
The proposal is strong and well supported, but the who is more significant than the what. A decade ago, Mann, Ornstein, and Corrado were central to the creation of the older reform model that focused primarily on limiting soft money and phony issue ads. Their 1997 document, "Five Ideas for Practical Campaign Reform," set the agenda for what later became the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002. While the authors have always favored modest public financing, they put the priority on limiting soft money if only as a more "practical" solution. Their shift in priorities, and the
recognition of a transformation in the underlying political environment
-- the ways in which campaigns can be funded and political information is
distributed -- is a significant development.
If the Supreme Court, as seems likely, further erodes BCRA and its limits when it finally releases a decision in the Citizens' United case, then these small-donor solutions become not just the best path for offsetting the influence of money in politics, they are the only possible path.
-- Mark Schmitt