Federal Election Laws Protect Those Already in Office
For the new NCFCA policy topic (“Resolved: That federal election law should be significantly reformed in the United States), students should step back and reflect on the role of elections.
Edmund Opitz at Foundation for Economic Education seminars used to emphasize that elections weren’t for deciding what government should do, instead they were for deciding who would run the government. (Here is a 1965 Freeman article, “Winner Take All” on majoritarian democracy, the idea that whichever party wins the election can expand government powers as they think best for society.)
At the federal level, legitimate government powers are listed in the Constitution and the allocation of those powers among branches of the federal government is described. The Bill of Rights lists further restrictions on Federal government powers, and makes clear that powers not listed are reserved for the states or the people.
So Federal election laws are rules governing the process of running elections, not about the size and scope of federal government actions and policies.
Federal elections are held not to decide who will “run the country” or even who will “run the government” but to choose who will serve in particular branches of the federal government. And the actions of those elected are or ought to be restricted to Constitutionally-limited powers.
All that said, federal government powers have been interpreted ever more broadly over the last century, expanding significantly during times of war and financial crises. Economic historian Robert Higgs explains this process in his important book, Crisis and Leviathan.
The vastly larger Federal budget and range of government programs raise new issues for elections. Federal spending has become the major source of revenue for tens of thousands of private companies, from major international corporations to large universities and research centers to small regional businesses. As an example, some years ago Congress decided to cancel funding for a large military aircraft. Letters and phone calls from businesses hurt by the cancellation began pouring into Congress. It turned out a major subcontractor for the airplane had operations and employees in every one of America’s 435 Congressional districts.
Military spending is a large part of the federal budget, but so is spending on social services, legal services, transportation, education, medical research, retirement, health care, and many other areas. This Heritage Foundation chart shows most spending goes to health care, Social Security, and the military (but note that the chart shows projected not actual percentages after 2012).
The people and companies that receive federal dollars obviously have an interest in federal policy changes that might reduce or increase those dollars in the future.
Which brings us (finally!) to federal campaign finance laws. Companies, individual, and associations whose members benefit from current Federal spending have incentives to involve themselves in the election process and contribute to the campaigns of incombant politicians. If companies or associations receiving Federal dollars donate significant amounts to candidates running for office against incombants, they put their future revenue at risk.
Federal campaign finance laws that restrict funding to candidates running for office necessarily hit challengers the hardest. Associations of military contractors, federal workers, state universities, or retired people, are more likely to provide forums for current Congressmen. There is no political or economic risk in major or modest donations to support the status quo or expanded Federal programs.
However, when a few companies or wealthy individuals are willing take the risk to support new candidates running for office they need to donate much larger amounts to enable challengers to be heard against the political donations and spending available to established politicians.
The recent Massachusetts election for a Senate offers an example. This Boston Globe article notes that Political Action Committees (PACs) supplied much of the support for long-term Massachusetts politician Ed Markey, who has been in Congress since 1976, against outsider Gabriel Gomez. From the article:
US Representative Edward J. Markey, who has repeatedly called on Republican Gabriel E. Gomez to sign a pledge curbing third-party spending in their Senate race, knows from personal experience how difficult it is to renounce outside contributions.
Markey himself pledged in 1984 not to accept contributions from political action committees, but put that promise aside in 2003 after Congress tightened campaign finance laws and as the congressman contemplated the possibility of replacing Senator John F. Kerry, who was then running for president.
Between 2003 and 2012, the Malden Democrat received $2.7 million from political action committees, about a third of his total haul during that time.
Between Jan. 1 of this year and April 10 — 20 days before the Democratic primary that Markey won last week — PACs gave him more than $500,000, according to a Globe analysis of Federal Election Commission data.
Not surprisingly, incombant and establishment candidates oppose campaign funding from “outside” or “third-party” sources that might favor their opponent. And these are precisely the kind of federal campaign laws that congressmen already in power tend to favor.
Who benefits from federal election laws that restrict or complicate outsider efforts campaign or raise funds to elect challengers to office? Established politicians benefit, as do established companies feeding on federal funds. These corporations gain protection from cutbacks or restructuring that could cost them their major and sometimes only “customer.”
For students interested an election law reform that would bring citizen-congressmen back into the election process, and bring some balance back into the Federal campaigns, I suggest they send well-worded letter to Howard Rich, the founder of U.S. Term Limits.