What About the Parties?

Last Monday, the Campaign Finance Institute -- along with the Miller Center of Public Affairs -- hosted a panel where a group of eight scholars, journalists, and lawyers sounded off on the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United and its consequences for the campaign-finance system. Representatives from the CFI noted that election-related spending by political committees and nonprofits is up 40 percent from 2008. And while some of this is expected as part of the steady increase of campaign spending -- "The big surge in nonprofit money began in 2008," says Michael Malbin, executive director of the CFI -- a significant part of it comes as a result of Citizens United.

For most of the two-hour session -- held at the U.S. Capitol's visitor center -- panel members drolly discussed what the growth in undisclosed spending meant for future campaign-finance reform. Lost in the shuffle was an impassioned point made by Nancy Rosenblum, a professor of ethics in government and politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University: At the same time that Citizens United liberated corporations and nonprofits to spend unlimited amounts, it upheld spending restrictions on political parties, "prohibiting them from spending in coordination with their candidates and from raising and spending non-federal funds for any purpose, including non-campaign activities."

We know that most people were outraged by the ruling -- 77 percent say that they want Citizens United to be overturned -- but this probably doesn't carry over into sympathy for political parties, which were weakened by the ruling. After all, Americans hate partisanship and love the idea of political independence. Important parts of our political system -- primaries, referendums, and the direct election of senators -- were introduced in order to weaken party power. Americans routinely say that they want their leaders to work together, and a growing plurality of Americans self-identify as "independent," despite their reliable partisan voting.

But for all their unpopularity, political parties play a critical role in our democracy. They organize governments, provide accountability for voters, give the public a narrative understanding of public policy and issues, and draw important lines of ideological contrast. What's more, they find, recruit, and train candidates -- as well as integrate them into a broader organization -- and they are one of the few forces in American life with an interest in expanding the electorate and encouraging political participation.

This is important. By upholding limitations on where and how parties can raise money -- while giving wide range to corporations and independent groups -- Citizens United scattered responsibility for raising funds and generating influence, placing voters at a disadvantage. When there's relative equality between parties and outside groups, the former have some incentive to reach out to voters for cash, which can dilute the influence of special interests. But without that equality, parties have more reason to concentrate their fundraising on the usual collection of corporations, parochial interest groups, and rich people. Moreover, with this disadvantage in play, parties aren't able to effectively respond to independent ads and attacks from non-party organizations, which hurts the ties between candidates and parties. Strong relationships are hard to create when you can't spend on your candidate's behalf without disavowing yourself from the campaign, or at least pretending your candidate doesn't exist.

What's more, because there are limits to how much parties can integrate with candidates on the congressional, state, and local levels -- direct coordination of funds is strictly limited -- this leaves candidates with further incentive to raise money from wealthy donors and others, since -- without something to make it worthwhile -- there's only so much you can raise through contributions from working- and middle-class people with few funds to spare. In the end, public interests are compromised because political parties and candidates have every reason to raise money from rich people and outside groups.

That said, there is nothing about political parties that makes them inherently beholden to outside interests. Indeed, because of their institutional ties to candidates and abiding interest in mobilizing voters, there is potential for political parties to serve as counterweights to corporate power. But this can only happen if we loosen restrictions on fundraising, spending, and coordination and give parties the rights we've already bestowed on corporations and independent groups.

The DISCLOSE Act -- which is languishing in the Senate -- goes a way toward doing this by allowing parties to make unlimited expenditures in coordination with their candidates. This improves accountability and strengthens parties, but there is a risk that it can be used to evade limits on individual contributions to candidates. As the Campaign Finance Institute points out, the solution then is to tie unlimited coordinated expenditures to small donations, which would empower ordinary voters and give parties a real incentive to reach out to them.

For all the money that we've seen in this year's election cycle, the truth is that we still haven't felt the full impact of Citizens United. The election years of 2012 and 2014 are likely to see explosions in independent expenditures, and regulation can only go so far in challenging it. Right now, political parties are our best option for challenging corporate power, and progressives should be doing what they can to remove barriers to party integration and give small donors more power to influence parties and candidates. Political parties will always need money, and for the sake of democracy, we should try to make sure that it comes from the right places.

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