Did Good Politics Lead to Bad Policy?

In a Washington Post column yesterday, Ruth Marcus laid the blame for Arizona’s worst law at the feet of its best -- the recent anti-immigrant law, she said, was passed in part because of the state’s 12-year-old system of public financing of elections.

How could this be? Marcus says that the public-financing program known as Clean Elections (which provides full funding to candidates who demonstrate a broad base of support through small seed-money contributions) “worked -- perhaps too well." Because “barriers to entry were extremely low,” inexperienced candidates could take on incumbents, and win. “Previously, for better or worse, candidates of both parties were "vetted" by business groups that then proceeded to help them raise money, a process that served to filter out extremes on both sides.”

The extremes on the right benefited in particular, she says, from the breakdown of the vetted-by-business system: “a law pushed by ‘good government’ types, primarily Democrats, ended up benefiting conservative Republicans who quickly figured out that the Clean Elections money could be used to take on Chamber of Commerce-type Republicans.” (Chamber of Commerce-type Republicans may be extreme themselves on many issues, such as taxes, environmental regulations and workplace safety, but they are less likely to be anti-immigrant, since they generally like a steady supply of low-wage workers.)

The conservatives put into power by Clean Elections, she implies, drove passage of the anti-immigration law.

I was surprised that Marcus didn’t support that claim with any numbers to show that, for example, legislators elected through Clean Money were more likely to support the immigration law. If she had, though, the numbers would have disproved her point: According to Public Campaign, the national organization that promotes Clean Elections reforms, 80 percent of the legislators who voted against the immigration bill were elected using public money, while only 54 percent of the new law’s supporters had used the system. And Latino legislators are among the strongest advocates of the system.

To test whether it was public financing that was pushing the Legislature to “extremes on both sides,” you could do a couple of experiments. First, you could compare Arizona to the 46 states that don’t have public financing. The Republican Party at least seems to have swung far to the right in most of those other states. Or you could compare Arizona’s Republican Legislature before and after the creation and widespread use of Clean Elections. What you would find is that the party has long swung back and forth between its crazy wing (no Martin Luther King holiday, for example) and its not-quite-as-crazy wing. As governor, Janet Napolitano was brilliant at playing off the internal divides in the state’s GOP, as well as keeping the politics of immigration under control. Her far-right Republican successor can’t do that.

Political reforms can definitely have unintended consequences, no doubt about it. But the idea that it brought about the anti-immigrant law seems to be a creative fiction generated by those “Chamber of Commerce-types” who miss the old days when they got to “vet” candidates.

-- Mark Schmitt

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