Lots of Hope but Little Evidence at D.C. City Council Hearing

On Thursday, July 11, the D.C. City Council Committee on Government Operations held a public roundtable on the feasibility of implementing taxpayer-funded campaigns for City Council elections in the District. Testimony was offered from policymakers and advocates from taxpayer-funded systems (in Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, and New York City), local D.C. groups and citizens, national advocacy groups for “clean elections,” and the Center for Competitive Politics. While the vast majority of testimony favored taxpayer funding of political campaigns, advocates for these systems couldn’t seem to agree on what exactly their reasoning was.

The newfound interest in taxpayer-funded campaigns for City Council in D.C. is surely the result of the recent corruption scandals to hit the district. Three city council members have resigned since 2012 due to corruption charges:  Harry Thomas for embezzlement of public funds, Kwame Brown for bank fraud and misuse of campaign funds, and Michael A. Brown for a pay-to-play scandal. As the Center’s testimony and others pointed out, none of these crimes would’ve been prevented by a taxpayer-funded system for City Council elections. This disconnect between the corruption problem the Council is ostensibly trying to address and the unrelated (and misguided) policy of taxpayer funding for political campaigns doomed the hearing to being little more than a merry-go-round of “reformers’” vague hopes and dreams.

Allow us to wake “reformers’” up from some of those dreams. First, research shows that taxpayer-funded political campaigns do not reduce corruption. Often, these systems actually create new avenues for corruption, as the provision of government grant money to anyone who meets minimum qualifications can entice unserious candidates to run for office interested solely in personal financial gain. CCP has frequently reported on abuses in tax-financed campaigns that show how easily such systems can incentivize greater corruption.

Testimony from Dorothy Brizill of D.C. Watch, a local government watchdog group, warned the Council not to oversell the potential “good government” benefits of taxpayer-funded campaigns. Chairman Kenyan McDuffie, the proposal’s co-author along with Councilmember David Grosso, then tried to re-establish a connection between the scandals and a citywide system of taxpayer-financed campaigns by suggesting that tax-financing could’ve potentially allowed tax-financed challengers to unseat the corrupt Councilmembers. Again, research begs to differ. The GAO conducted an extensive study of Arizona and Maine’s Clean Elections programs in 2010, and found that after implementing a statewide system of tax-financed campaigns, “There were no statistically significant differences observed for… contestedness (number of candidates per race) and incumbent reelection rates.” Testimony from Connecticut State Representative Gary Holder-Winfield also supported that finding. Even though Rep. Holder-Winfield favored the program, he said it didn’t have a strong impact on incumbency rates in the Connecticut General Assembly. CCP’s research on the make-up and diversity of legislatures elected under tax-financed campaigns further demonstrates that hopes to substantively change government through tax-financed campaign systems are deeply misguided.

Having established that a tax-financing program would neither guard against corruption, nor reduce incumbency, advocates next tried to argue that the behavior of incumbents would be fundamentally altered by tax-financed campaigns. On this point, however, they couldn’t even seem to agree with themselves, let alone the evidence.

Some testified that tax-financing of campaigns is necessary because legislators spend too much time raising money, and tax-financing would free them from that obligation. Others testified that tax-financing is necessary because legislators ignore their constituents in favor of big donors, and tax-financing would force them to spend more time getting support from the people in their community. These claims are direct opposites. Somehow, advocates are simultaneously saying that legislators spend too much time fundraising and too little time fundraising, so we need tax-financing to make them spend less time fundraising and more time fundraising. My head hurts just thinking about it.

However, there are other reasons to be skeptical of claims about the ability of tax-financed campaigns to change incumbent behavior. A CCP study of incumbent voting behavior before and after Connecticut implemented tax-financed campaigns in 2008 shows no change due to the program. A Goldwater Institute study of Arizona’s elections also found that both publicly-financed and privately-financed candidates were equally likely to vote with organized interests.

Unable to credibly argue that tax-financed campaigns could change government itself, advocates finally argued that they could at least change citizens’ perceptions of city government. I’m all in favor of citizens feeling warm and fuzzy, but D.C. has shown it has very real corruption problems. The way to improve public perception of government would be to have a better government, which tax-financed campaigns are highly unlikely to produce. Improving people’s perceptions of government without improving government itself would just make the public perception inaccurate. To me, that’s not a benefit.

Of the 21 witnesses scheduled to testify, only the Center highlighted many of these shortcomings of tax-financed campaign programs. Despite the evidence, the “common sense” wisdom of many Americans still seems to favor these ill-conceived systems. The Center will continue to do our part, in D.C. and nationwide, to inform the public discourse about the actual effects of tax-financed campaigns.

 

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.