‘Reformers’ begin to recognize who benefits from contribution limits

There was a fascinating article in Thursday’s Washington Post concerning the scandal that has erupted in the United Kingdom over the practice of hacking into private voicemails by the now-shuttered News of the World.

Fury at Murdoch reflects pent-up anger of intimidated politicians

The phone-hacking scandal that has driven Rupert Murdoch and his empire into retreat and gripped audiences on both sides of the Atlantic is playing out against the backdrop of a combustible political-media culture vastly different from that in the United States…

In Britain, money plays a smaller role in politics than it does in the United States, and politicians have few ways to communicate effectively with the public outside the media filter. Television advertising plays no significant role in campaigns; for the most part, it is not allowed.

An American politician who feels aggrieved by the media can buy television spots to answer them. His British counterparts have no such option. Elected officials must depend on the good graces of newspapers for favorable coverage…

This is something that we have pointed out time and time again, that restricting the ability of candidates (and private citizens either individually or through organizations) to speak to the public necessarily enhances the voices of others who are not restricted, primarily the media.

Surprisingly, and in a very welcome development, writers at two left-leaning media outlets who have in the past generally lined up with the so-called campaign finance ‘reform’ community have recognized the peril of limits on money in politics. Kevin Drum, political blogger for Mother Jones, had the following observation:

Money in Politics

Why do tabloid press barons have so much power in Great Britain? The Washington Post offers an explanation that never really occurred to me before:

In Britain, money plays a smaller role in politics than it does in the United States, and politicians have few ways to communicate effectively with the public outside the media filter. Television advertising plays no significant role in campaigns; for the most part, it is not allowed.

An American politician who feels aggrieved by the media can buy television spots to answer them. His British counterparts have no such option. Elected officials must depend on the good graces of newspapers for favorable coverage.

File this under “watch what you wish for,” I guess. In America, vast pools of money in politics give the business community enormous power to influence elections. That’s bad. But the alternative, apparently, is to get the money out and instead give media moguls enormous power to influence elections. Pick your poison.

Drum’s blog post is hardly a ringing endorsement of the First Amendment right to support the candidates and causes of one’s choice, but it at least is a step in the right direction. Mathew Yglesias at Think Progress seems to have thought a little longer on the subject:

It’s Very Hard To Take Money Out Of Politics

It’s certainly true as Kevin Drum says that one thing that happens when politicians don’t have the money to buy tons of television ads is that the guys who own newspapers get a lot of power. But I think it’s worth pointing out that this is just one of the many ways that money is bound to talk in the political system no matter what you do with campaign finance. Politicians are very dependent on lobbyists and trade associations not just for money, but for knowledge, expertise, and analytical capacity. But of course lobbyists and trade associations have those things in part because they cost money.

This is, I think, a pretty huge problem. But it’s not really one that can be solved by reducing people’s ability to give money to politicians. What’s needed are institutional reforms that give politicians more capacity to do analysis, and that put more political authority in the hands of politicians who have analytic capacity at their disposal.

I doubt Drum and Yglesias will be sending a contribution to the Center for Competitive Politics any time soon, but it does seem to be something of a breakthrough that they’ve at least recognized that the goal of campaign finance ‘reform,’ to sharply restrict private money in political campaigns and public policy discussions, will simply give even more power to those who aren’t hindered by such laws, particularly the media.