The Tea Party is putting a conservative spin on progressive campaign finance ideas. Good.

The Tea Party and the progressive movement don’t have much in common, but they both agree that when concentrations of wealth are translated into concentrations of political speech, the result is bad for democracy.

Apparently, they agree so much that they’ve started to have the same ideas about how to reform the way in which we fund our elections.

On Monday, Jon Schwarz at The Intercept trumpeted a proposal from John Pudner as “The Best Campaign Finance Reform Idea Yet (Really).” Pudner is most notable for being a top adviser to Congressman David Brat, who recently ousted then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary challenge from the right. Now, he runs the Take Back Our Republic Action Fund, a group whose top priority is making small campaign contributions tax-deductible up to $200.

As Pudner noted in The Daily Beast:

I recently had a chance to chat with one of the GOP presidential candidates, and suggested to him that we needed to focus on making small donors a bigger part of the campaign finance equation, and he actually finished my sentence by saying, “… because unlike big donors, they do not expect anything in return.”

Yet Congress continues to subsidize those big donors through tax credits, which is both unfair and bad for the country. Think about it: If you had to choose between giving average citizens a $200 tax credit for their small campaign contribution to the candidate of their choice or giving billionaires like Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg a tax break for pumping over $100 million into the candidate of their choice, which would you choose?

Pudner’s frustrations are our frustrations. Empirical data has shown that you can draw a straight, statistically significant line between a given industry’s political expenditures and their marginal tax rate. The right points to Solyndra, the left points to General Electric and Boeing, but the point remains the same: Money buys influence, and right now the wealthiest individuals and businesses can afford to buy more influence than everyone else put together.

But despite what The Intercept‘s article would have you believe, Pudner’s solutions are, in many respects, our solutions — at least the viable ones. Providing a $200 tax credit for small campaign contributions doesn’t sound all that different from the $50-100 democracy voucher proposed by Lawrence Lessig back in 2011 (in fact, aside from the dollar amount, it’s almost exactly the same). And Lessig’s proposal is itself an adaptation of Bruce Ackerman’s “Patriot card” idea, published back in 2001.

All of these proposals start with the premise that money is going to equal speech in American politics indefinitely. Ever since the Supreme Court codified this definition in Buckley v Valeo in 1976, it has become increasingly hard to justify limits on money in politics on legal grounds, as any form of contribution cap can be classified as a restriction of free speech. And whatever one may think as to the merits of the Citizens United decision — The Intercept‘s editor, Glen Greenwald, feels that it was correctly decided — one can’t help but acknowledge that a constitutional amendment overturning it is a pipe dream.

This being the case, the question is not how to bulldoze through the legal framework surrounding our current campaign finance system and redefine contributions as political influence instead of political speech — even if that’s closer to the truth. Instead, the question is how to work within our existing legal framework to attenuate the problems that effectively unregulated money in politics pose.

Which is why, in all of the above proposals from the left and right, the solution is more money, not less. Under Pudner’s, Lessig’s and Ackerman’s programs, the government recognizes that it has a vested interest in encouraging campaign contributions from ordinary Americans, and allocates money in order to incentivize this form of political participation. Whether this is achieved via tax credits or direct transfers is irrelevant; the effect is the same. What’s more, it’s completely constitutional, encourages political participation and, at scale, has the potential to dilute the power of concentrated financial interests.

In Pudner’s words:

Right now there are about 10,000 small donors per congressional district, and together they gave $356 million. With just a little incentive, they would give a lot more.

money farm

Heartland money via Shutterstock

Quite a lot more, in fact. Pudner’s tax credit, taken to its limit (with 230 million eligible citizens fully allocating their $200 credit), could inject as much as $46 billion in small contributions. While the amount would certainly not be that high if implemented, it doesn’t have to be: The Koch brothers are projected to be this campaign’s largest donors, having committed $889 million (with an m) to the race. They would still use that money, and it would still matter, but it would matter less if it didn’t comprise such a large piece of the campaign finance pie.

All this is to say that there is political will on the left and right for campaign finance reforms that empower ordinary citizens to push back against the overwhelmingly disproportionate influence currently wielded by those who can buy democracy. As Schwarz concludes:

It’s not hard to see why genuine grassroots conservatives might find this concept appealing. It’s simple, straightforward and wouldn’t create a big bureaucracy, it’s clearly constitutional and it doesn’t require the government to make decisions about what constitutes acceptable political speech. Liberals would be wise to start exploring whether this is potential ground for a right-left alliance to drain the stinking swamp of U.S. politics.

All he’s missing is the fact that we already have. Welcome to the party.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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15 Responses to “The Tea Party is putting a conservative spin on progressive campaign finance ideas. Good.”

  1. Ralphie Buffalo says:

    The problem is that participation rate in using the tax credit is low. Only 6% of taxpayers use it, in any given year.

  2. Ralphie Buffalo says:

    The idea of a political tax credit did not come from Lawrence Lessig or Bruce Ackerman in 2001. Oregon has had a political tax credit ($50 per individual taxpayer, $100 per couple per year) since 1970.

  3. GrantS says:

    10,000 donors giving 356,000,000. That’s an average of 35,600. I would not call those small donors – it exceeds the yearly income of over half the red state citizens. $200 is nothing to those who can give that much unless this is allowed to be used for each state and federal race individually somehow.

  4. BeccaM says:

    Term limits, I can definitely get behind. But popularly elected? Only if their campaigns are publicly financed, otherwise we’ve already seen what happens when judges are elected at the state level. It equals inevitable corruption.

  5. 2karmanot says:

    Same here. Let’s start with a major overhaul of the Supreme Court: term limits and at least two of them popularly elected during a Presidential year election.

  6. The_Fixer says:

    I knew you were gonna say that :)

    I upvoted you in spite of the fact that I disagree with the larger premise of tossing even more money into this mess. Perhaps these ideas make sense in the short term until such time as the “little people” can get enough influence to truly change things. I’d have to give it more than casual thought to conclude that to be a sensible idea.

    Can that happen? I truly wonder whether it will take a full-scale revolution for change to happen. I share your fear that publicly financed campaigns may well push big money into the super PACs. But I think that can be dealt with.

    The problem is truly that the legislators and other politicians will never do any of these things until and unless there is some kind of anvil over their heads, ready to drop.

    In short, I think I know what the solution is, just not how to get there. Yes, I am a bit of a purist, with some pragmatism mixed in.

  7. BeccaM says:

    Unfortunately this notion supports the premise that elections are supposed to be purchased, and all it’s doing is trying to make it a little easier for those who aren’t billionaires to compete.

    This is entirely backwards. Many 1st world countries have recognized it makes no sense to allow unlimited campaign spending, as it leads to situations like we here in the U.S. have now, where our election cycles now span years and they’ve become bread-and-circuses events. Our elected officials also have no choice but spend far, far too much of their time raising more campaign money. And all of this leads to ridiculous levels of corruption and quid pro quos in our governance.

    I don’t know if this is as obvious to everyone else as it seems to me, but America’s political leaders are now acquiring billionaire patrons. Not just because it affords an advantage, but because it’s become necessary to win.

    Most of these other nations have strict limits on spending and many of them also have public funding of campaigns. America, on the other hand, has been embracing full-on plutocracy. Government of the rich, for the rich.

    The very first thing we need to do? Find some way of rejecting the current belief that money = free speech. Until we deal with this — and with the clerical mistake that turned corporations into people — simply putting more money into campaigns isn’t going to fix the systemic problem with our hypercapitalist governing philosophies.

    I don’t know… I just have this visceral reaction against the proposal that the solution to billionaires buying America’s elections is to put even more money into them.

  8. Bill_Perdue says:

    Fascists are fascists. They’re not usually very shy about announcing who they are and what they want. Democrats and Republicans are controlled by the rich and they can pay their own way.

  9. Jon Green says:

    I agree in principle, but the problem is that that simply isn’t feasible as long as money is defined as speech, and we’re stuck with that definition for a while. Even if you had publicly financed campaigns, you’d just be pushing private money into super PACs. In other words, we can’t get money completely out of politics (especially since it’s hard to draw a clear, undisputed line as to where “political” speech begins), so the next best thing is to make small money competitive.

  10. The_Fixer says:

    I don’t think that the solution is to get more money into politics, rather, less.

    This huge gathering of incomprehensible amounts of cash allows campaigns that are too long, and has the unintended side-effect of people getting burnt-out on one of the most important parts of democracy – selecting who is going to represent our interests in running the country.

    Publicly financed campaigns, with money distributed equally among qualified candidates, seems to me to be a far better solution than just throwing more money at the problem.

  11. HKAnders says:

    Who would decide who is a fascist, and what constitutes being “controlled by the rich?”

  12. HKAnders says:

    I don’t know how the legalities would work, but I think any individual or incorporated entity should be able to donate as much as they like, up to $50 per candidate, per election cycle, in direct or in-kind contributions. If Sheldon Adelson, Americans for Prosperity, SEIU or my neighbors Michael and David have $50 they’re not using for anything else, they should be free to give it to the candidate of their choice. Additionally, they should be able to donate $50 per election cycle to the PAC or party of their choice.

    Money is speech? Fine. But we regulate speech. I can’t accuse Rush Limbaugh of having sex with children if he does not, in fact, have sex with children. If I do, then he has a legal cause of action against me. Assuming he doesn’t have sex with children.

    We should be able to regulate money as speech just as we regulate speech as speech.

    Limiting every individual or incorporated entity to $100 per election cycle would democratize money as speech in political campaigns.

  13. Bill_Perdue says:

    If liberals and conservatives are concerned about campaign finance reform they should insist that equal amounts of money be give to each party except fascists and parties controlled by the rich to publicize their ideas.

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