It’s understandable that many people think that campaign contributions are a pernicious weapon of private influence on policy. A recent prominent report on OpenSecrets described the “mashup” of campaign contributions and earmarks. In fact, you might even believe that eradicating private funding of campaigns would reduce the influence of special interests and their lobbyists. Like Public Campaign, which describes tax funding of campaigns in glowing terms:
Rather than being forced to rely on special interest donors to pay for their campaigns, candidates have the opportunity to qualify for full public funding which ends their reliance on special interest campaign cash. Being freed from the money chase means they have more time to spend with constituents, talking about issues that matter to them. When they enter office, they can consider legislation on the merits, without worrying about whether they are pleasing well heeled donors and lobbyists.
But according to real, live candidates in jurisdictions where tax funding is available, that isn’t the case.
The GAO’s recent report on tax funding in Maine and Arizona provides a wealth of detail. Buried among the data, however, are interviews GAO had with candidates running in these jurisdictions. Here’s the report’s description:
For Arizona, about half of the candidates interviewed (5 of 11) said that the public financing program did not affect the likelihood that elected officials serve the interests of their constituents free of influence by specific individuals or groups. One of these candidates said that the influence of special interest groups still exists, even if it does not come in the form of direct contributions. She explained that interest groups approach candidates with questionnaires and ask them to take pledges on different policy issues and also send their members voter guides and scorecards that rate candidates. Two other Arizona candidates we interviewed commented that under the public financing program, interest groups have been contributing to campaigns in different ways, such as providing campaign volunteers, and collecting $5 qualifying contributions for participating candidates. In contrast, 4 of the 11 candidates said that the likelihood that elected officials serve the interests of their constituents had decreased as a result of the public financing program. One of these candidates explained that the role of interest groups has increased, as they have become very skilled at producing advertisements with independent expenditures.
But Aha! you say. That’s Arizona. Surely the news out of sober-minded Maine would be better. Um, not really. This is the Report’s description for Maine:
In Maine, a little over half of the candidates (6 of 11) said that the likelihood that elected officials serve the interests of their constituents free of influence by specific individuals or interest groups neither increased nor decreased as a result of the public financing program. One of these candidates said the public financing program has not met the goal of decreasing the influence of interest groups, since interest groups will always find ways to influence legislators and the election process. However, 4 candidates we interviewed in Maine-all of whom participated in the public financing program-said that that likelihood that elected officials serve free of influence by individuals or groups greatly increased or increased. One of these candidates explained that participating candidates are more empowered to serve as they see fit and are less willing to listen to political party leadership. On the other hand, a different candidate said that the elected officials are less likely to serve free of influence by specific individuals or groups as a result of the public financing program. The candidate explained that under the public financing program, lobbyists and special interest groups have focused less on individual candidates, and more on winning favor with the Democratic and Republican party leadership.
22 interviews. 11 say no change. 5 say worse. 6 say better. Ew. Whether this is another illustration of the so-called “hydraulic effect” or just more proof that the law of unintended consequences would beat the law of gravity in a one-on-one is a debate we can leave to others. For now, it is sufficient to note that the data suggest tax funding does not unweld the iron triangle that allegedly corrupts Washington. Apparently campaign contributions are not a necessary component, and abolishing them does not fix anything.