Friday, September 19, 2014

Commissioners, Practitioners, and Reformers Discuss BCRA’s Effect on Political Parties

Displaying a sharp divergence indicative of their operative knowledge of political parties, two FEC Commissioners, two election lawyers, and two campaign finance reformers met on Wednesday to discuss how the current legal paradigm affects political parties.

FEC Chairman Lee E. Goodman and high-level political attorneys Ben Ginsberg and Neil Reiff—all experienced “party veterans”—explained the deleterious effect laws such as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act have had on political parties. The two reformers, Larry Noble and Tara Malloy—hailing from the fact-challenged Campaign Legal Center—viewed the situation differently. They defended BCRA and put the onus on political parties to adapt. FEC Vice Chair, Ann M. Ravel, while lacking a background in party politics, nevertheless expressed support for political parties, stating they play an important role in civic engagement.

Multiple panelists lamented BCRA’s federalization of state and local political activity. According to Mr. Reiff, onerous federal regulatory burdens force state candidates to abandon their relationship with state and local parties to avoid expensive compliance, thereby damaging the “farm system” of politics.

Chairman Goodman followed up with a practical example: a treasurer for a local party receives an FEC ‘Request for Additional Information.’ Rather than slogging through the burdensome and intimidating responding process, she quits, leaving the party chair with this overwhelming duty. Next time, instead of engaging in party-building functions, they refrain to avoid federal entanglement; in the interim, the party is tangibly weakened.

Mr. Ginsburg then examined the global effects on party standing these laws have. By handcuffing the parties, federal regulations created a vacuum outside groups filled. The parties’ three main functions: fundraising, messaging, and voter mobilization have now been outsourced. This leaves state and local parties broke and ineffective.

The reformers countered BCRA benefited the system by eliminating soft money, which large donors used to gain access and influence with party leaders and lawmakers. Mr. Noble stated observers have long predicted the parties’ demise and they will adapt to the new environment.

The other panelists expanded on the harms by noting how the legal structure has weakened the parties’ influence as stabilizing and inclusive forces. Chairman Goodman explained how hashing out thorny political issues within the party apparatus leads to temperate policy platforms.

He also explained how parties’ democratic structure—exemplified by Virginia Republican conventions—necessarily engages a diverse array of people (a point of emphasis for Vice Chair Ravel). “Parties don’t win unless they are inclusive,” he stated. The results have borne this out. Virginia Republicans in 2013 had one African American and two women competing for their Lieutenant Governor nomination. And its current Northern Virginia Congressional slate includes two women and one minority candidate. Absent the parties’ moderating influence, Super PACs and 501(c)(4) organizations fill the vacuum resulting in a less inclusive, more polarized politics.

The reformers concentrated on fundraising, stating the BCRA’s elimination of soft money forced candidates and parties to recruit small donors, which has made the system more inclusive.

Both Mr. Reiff and Chairman Goodman offered solutions to restore the balance that BCRA artificially removed. Mr. Reiff suggested BCRA had gone too far by not stopping at soft money and offered an improvement plan.

Chairman Goodman offered two concrete solutions. First, allow the parties and candidates to coordinate expenditures to a far higher degree. Currently coordination activity stops at about 9 cents per voter or 18 cents combining the limits of state and national parties. This increases the potential for corruption by making candidates dependent on outside groups to defend them when attacked by big independent expenditures. Eliminating this coordination rule, or at least increasing the combined limit of candidate coordination with national and state parties to $1 per voter (50 cents for each party) would make a tremendous difference in the parties' ability to maneuver on behalf of their candidates. “It is the parties that should have the candidate’s back,” Goodman stated.

Second, the threshold for FEC-reportable activity should be substantially loosened. This would give the state and local parties breathing room to perform their functions without the constant threat of federal oversight.

The reformers repeatedly returned to the dual themes of disclosure and coordination. Mr. Noble apparently believes candidates contravene federal law by secretly coordinating with outside groups, although a recent study found little evidence for that sentiment.

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