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Home / Guest Commentary / Jonathan Bernstein: Looser campaign finance laws won’t help political parties
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Jonathan Bernstein: Looser campaign finance laws won’t help political parties

Rick Hasen and Bob Bauer are fighting about the possible effects of a further loosening of the campaign finance regime in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. Hasen believes that ending contribution limits might strengthen parties, and thereby strengthen party leaders, and thus alleviate congressional gridlock. Bauer disagrees. But both believe, with Richard Pildes, that parties are (in Hasen’s words) “relatively weak” right now.

None of them are listening closely enough to the party network arguments.

Congressional parties aren’t relatively weak; they’re about as strong as they’ve ever been, and certainly the strongest they’ve been over the last century. I strongly disagree that parties are “in service” to candidates. Compared with the 1960s or 1970s, and probably with the 1980s and 1990s, candidates are more, not less, dependent on party resources, whether it’s for personnel or money. Yes, only some of these resources are controlled by formal party organizations, but that’s not the correct test of whether resources are party-linked. An “outside” group functioning fully within the Republican Party network can be, in some circumstances, even more of a party entity than groups and people within formal party organizations.

(For example: under the soft money regime that preceded McCain-Feingold, funds passed through formal party organizations, with donors and candidates quite clear on who the money was intended for, and with those formal party organizations having neither any real discretion about what to do with the money or benefiting in any other substantial way from it. Compare that to a group that operates outside the formal party organization, but collects and spends money with the sole purpose of electing one party’s candidates.)

It is true that today’s strong congressional parties don’t always produce a dictatorship of the leadership, in which the rank-and-file must agree to whatever John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Mitch McConnell want. But that’s never been true in the Senate and hasn’t been true in the House for a century (and proved unstable back then). Moreover, and more to the point, revolts against the leadership have almost always, in the past few Congresses, been party revolts. That’s the story with, say, the government shutdown in October. It wasn’t a case of a few random members of Congress ignoring the leadership; it was a result of an internal argument within the Republican Party, which was temporarily won by the shutdown faction.

These kinds of party fights are nothing like mid-20th century gridlock, in which a single committee chairman could shut down a bill — and in which most members on both sides of the aisle would rally to support the rights of committee chairmen against the party caucus. Note, for one thing, that the rebels against Boehner have typically been reacting to (national) party constraints and incentives, not driven by idiosyncratic district or mere personal preferences.

What’s more, if parties were really “in service” to candidates, surely party polarization scores would be far lower, because individual politicians would be choosing policy preferences on their own. Instead, candidates are elected in most cases only by organizing candidacies that are strongly embedded within the party network, which among other things practically dictates positions on almost every issue. That probably explains a great deal of why parties are so cohesive; it’s practically impossible to make it up to the level of the House without being fully absorbed by one’s party.

Again, that doesn’t mean that the party internally agrees on everything. Nor does it mean that everyone is prepared to take orders from a single leader. But that was never the case for U.S. parties, and certainly wasn’t the case in some mythical Sam Rayburn past.

So why gridlock? Well, first of all, divided government. Democrats were pretty productive in 2009-2010. But I have argued that there’s another answer, which is the “post-policy” Republican Party. A party with clear policy goals could find some basis for compromise, even during times of divided government. But a party with mainly symbolic goals, with one of those symbolic goals an aversion to compromise? Not so much.

It’s extremely hard for me to see how changes in the campaign-finance structure involving more or less money flowing through formal party organizations has any predictable relationship with changing either the chances of divided government, on the one hand, or the post-policy Republican Party, on the other.

My general sense of these things is that rules stability is good for parties. Significant rules changes tend to open things up for various players to game the system; long-term stability allows parties to adapt. But I’d certainly agree that not all rules will produce the same adaptations, or the same size of disruptions. My guess right now is that eliminating contribution caps won’t really be much of a disruption and that our strong networked parties will adapt fairly easily, but I’m open to discussion on that one.

At any rate, this whole thing shows that there’s actually quite a bit at stake in the argument over the condition of the parties. And that those of us who study party networks still have a ways to go.


To contact the writer of this article: [email protected].

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at [email protected].

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