Do the contributions made to political campaigns by individuals, businesses, and political action committees help or hinder democracy? Funding political campaigns increases the quantity of information provided to voters on candidate’s policy positions, experience, and qualities. This in turn can contribute to a more informed citizenry. While this is true, unequal levels of private contributions leads to unequal representation through the influence of businesses contributions on policy outcomes, shifting candidate’s focus from public service to campaign funding, increasing incumbent’s advantage, and excluding citizens who are underfunded. This undermines the fundamental principles of democracy laid out by the civic textbook model to which America aspires.
In their articles, both Feingold and Doolittle recognize that the levels of campaign financing may lead to unequal representation in democracy. Feingold was primarily concerned with soft money as a source of inequality. Even though the BCRA was passed in 2002 limiting soft money use, the levels of funding and evidence of unequal political influence remain high (FEC 7). Effective reform can promote competition, freedom and a more informed electorate (Doolittle 307). Reform should equalize influence, return focus from money to issues, increase competition, and enable more citizens to participate in the democratic process.
In America political campaigns are vital outlets to relay candidate and policy information to the citizenry. In 1986, Charles McMathias argued the sheer magnitude of campaign contributions should warrant cause for limiting its influence. In addition, spending continues to increase specifically in the house and senate. To McMathias the most notable aspect was that this trend has begun to attract more and more representatives with vast personal wealth (65-68). This trend still continues, in 2004 it was reported that 40 of 100 senators were millionaires.
One must question the integrity of the electoral process itself when the participants with the greatest influence are those with the greatest financial resources. Contributions to campaigns may indicate support but are more likely the result of those who have a stake in the outcome. People who perceive benefits from a specific result will rationally pool their resources in order to have a greater collective impact (McMathias 65-68 & 71).
Feingold enhances McMathias argument proposing that the representative democracy in America has evolved into a corporate democracy. A corporate democracy is one where those who contribute the greatest amount of money to the electoral process have the greatest influence on outcomes of public policy debates (322). The BCRA of 2002 prohibited national party committees and limited federal candidates and officeholders ability to raise or spend soft money (FEC 7). While this is true campaign contributions continue to increase. As Feingold argues, large campaign contributions would not be made without some expectation of reward.
Why do businesses continue to contribute millions of dollars to campaigns if scholarly work has continually shown business contributions at best buy innocuous access to the political process? Fellowes and Wolf argue in their study that previous literature undercounted business contributions to representatives failing to include individuals with business interests. Congressional representatives were shown to receive as much money from business interested individuals as from PAC committees. Furthermore, Fellowes and Wolf found that previous studies were too narrowly focused on macro measures of business interests (315-316).
As a result, tactical rationality can explain how recipients of campaign contributions pursue a rational strategy of rewarding business contributors in ways that reduce the electoral cost of doing so. Therefore candidates use a vote visibility method waiting for specific low-profile initiatives to emerge for them to satisfy the quid pro quo exchange. Using the Ordinary least Squares model evidence found suggested that representatives who receive a larger campaign contributions from business sources are more likely to support business interest when the bills are not a direct quid pro quo (Fellowes, Wolf 317-319).
While businesses can have specific influence on legislation through campaign contributions, the cost of campaigning process itself has created problems for democracy. Interviews of three politicians explained that money has become the end all, be all in politics. This leads to more time spent on funding campaigns than on public service. Pervasive campaign obsession gives the impression that all candidates can be bought and sold by the biggest givers. This time consuming and grueling process undermines citizen’s confidence in the campaign process and decreases the ability of public officers to perform their duties. (McMathias 67).
The high cost of campaigning also give incumbents a wielding advantage over challengers as challengers have to spend more to overcome the incumbent’s advantage. Doolittle argues that spending limits give incumbents an even greater advantage over challengers due to the negative correlation between campaign spending and the likelihood of winning for incumbents (309). The cost of fundraising is higher for the challenger than for the incumbent, which can detract many suitable candidates from running for office. Incumbents work further to scare off competitors with what McMathias calls their war chest (67-68). For these reasons, Doolittle argues that removing limits on campaign funding will bring about greater competition.
To encourage competition Doolittle’s suggests eliminating limits on campaign contributions. On the contrary, the Unites States should foster competition by offering public funding to all candidates who reach a threshold or percentage of public support. In addition, McC. Mathias argues that setting expenditure limits does not hurt challengers as much as the lack of funding available to them (McC. Mathias 74). In 2008 the average winning candidate of the house spent 1.37 million while the average looser spent about 492 thousand (Open Secrets).
The high cost of campaigning in combination with unequal campaign contributions lead to the views of citizens who are less organized or lack funding being excluded from the political process. To preserve democracy and representative government these citizens presence should be acknowledged and interests taken into account (McC. Mathias 69). Public funding of elections could work to include smaller parties, candidates and citizens currently locked out of the election process. Providing public funding may help more challengers and smaller parties in relating their message to garner support but alone will not end the incumbent’s advantage.
In addition to public funding, reducing the cap on individual and political action committee contributions should be decreased. In ’86 McC. Mathias argued that the 1,000 dollar limit on individual contributions was well beyond the scope of most individuals ability to contribute. The limit has since been raised to 2,400 for individuals.
There are 217.8 million eligible voters in the US as of 2004 according the Census Bureau. A mere 51 percent of the population or electorate has to support a candidate to win an election in a majority system. If 51 percent of the US voting population contributed 2,400 dollars to one candidate that candidate would raise 2,665,87,200,000 dollars. This may help add to the mounting evidence that it is not many individuals who are contributing the maximum amount to campaigns but few individuals contributing much larger amounts than others.
The continually increasing amounts of funding in political campaigns suggest that there is some inherent return from campaign contributions. The high costs of campaigning in America has led to the unequal influence of business on legislation through campaign contributions while excluding parties, candidates and citizens who lack funding from the political process. In addition the rising costs of campaigns has led to a shift in candidate focus from public service to campaign financing and has increased incumbents advantage over challengers.
To mediate these consequences and maintain a representative democracy, the United States should seriously consider reforming the campaign process to providing public funding for all candidates who reach a threshold or percentage of public of support. Further, all citizens should have equal political influence which can be reached by limiting the amounts of individual and PAC contributions to political campaigns, parties and candidates.
1.) The Federal Election Commission, Thirty Year Report. September 2005
2.) Feingold, Russell. “Representative Democracy Versus Corporate Democracy: How Soft Money Erodes the Principle of “One Person, One Vote” Harvard Journal on Legislation 35, no. 2 (1988) 377–86.
3.) Doolittle, John. “The Case for Campaign Finance Reform.” A Journal of Ideas , US House of Representatives, Office of the Congressman Peter Hoekstra 53-57.
4.) McMathias Jr., Charles. “Should There Be Public Financing of Congressional Campaigns?” The Annuals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (1986) 64-75.
5.) Fellowes, Patrick J. Wolf. :Funding Mechanisms and Policy Instruments: How Business Campaign Contributions Influence Congressional Votes.” Political Research Quarterly. (2004) 315-323.
6.)Top All-Time Donors 1989-2010 Summary. http://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/list.php?order=A