Fair Elections Now Act and Aristotle’s theory of falling objects

Many years ago (more than I care to think about or admit), in my high school physics class I was taught the apocryphal story of how Galileo Galilei disproved Aristotle’s theory regarding the speed at which objects fell. Without going into excruciating detail, Aristotle had determined that an object twice as heavy as another would fall twice as fast. With a little experimentation, Galileo tested Aristotle’s theory and found it to be false, allegedly by dropping balls of different weights off the leaning Tower of Pisa.

The difference between Aristotle and Galileo, it turns out, was that one went beyond theories and attempted to determine if those theories actually worked in the real world.

I was thinking of this story on Friday, listening to speaker after speaker at the Brennan Center’s Money in Politics conference extol the virtues of the Fair Elections Now Act, which would provide taxpayer dollars to candidates running for Congress. Needless to say, there was lots of hope based on the theories of so-called campaign finance “reform,” namely that getting private money out of politics would lead to all sorts of wonderful things – less “special interest” influence, more candidates of non-traditional backgrounds getting elected, different public policy outcomes on important votes, and so forth.

The Center for Competitive Politics has spent a great deal of time and effort playing Galileo to the campaign finance “reform” community’s Aristotle, testing one by one the various claims and predictions made by “reformers” about the benefits of “clean elections” and other efforts to regulate money in politics.

Among our findings to date are that, contrary to the “reform” community’s statements, “clean elections” do not lead to more women getting elected, nor do “clean elections” produce legislators with different backgrounds, and “clean elections” certainly don’t save taxpayers any money.

Not all of the speakers at the Brennan Center event were quite so Aristotelian in their outlook. CCP board member and academic advisor Allison Hayward offered a dissenting note from the evidence-free orthodoxy offered by most of the speakers, and Bob Bauer offered his view that the case for the Fair Elections Now Act is a modest one, far less than most proponents claim. Bauer has offered similar comments before about the limited benefits such programs offer, although he remains a fan of such “clean elections” programs.

Bauer was one of two speakers to recognize by name the Center for Competitive Politics as the leading opponent of the Fair Elections Now Act and similar schemes, referencing us as the group that continues to churn out research that is unhelpful to the “reform” community. Less kind was Nick Nyhart, head of Public Campaign, the group that has spent the last 12 years attempting to foist “clean elections” onto the American public at the federal and state level. He is apparently quite confused about why we at the Center for Competitive Politics would oppose the Fair Elections Now Act, but then an accounting of the things Mr. Nyhart is confused about would be quite long so it really shouldn’t be a surprise that this is on that list.

Just as Aristotle’s observations were hobbled by his firm belief in an earth-centric universe, the “reformers” are hobbled by their devotion to the idea that political corruption and inefficiency revolves around campaign contributions.  By continuously testing and researching the claims of the “reform” community, the Center for Competitive Politics is changing the way elected officials, the media, academics, and the public at large think about the important role of money in politics, to the great irritation of Nick Nyhart and most of the rest of the attendees at Friday’s conference.

It might not be as big as upending the earth-centric universe was in the 15th Century, but it’s an important job nonetheless. And amid his confusion, even Nyhart recognizes the impact we’re having.