Could campaign finance overhaul help solve congressional gridlock?

Vice President Joe Biden said big money in politics is "corrupting." (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)


Should we restrict political contributions? How have weakened political parties impacted this election? Can public financing work? President-elect Donald Trump pledged to "drain the swamp," yet has not proposed changes to the campaign finance system. So experts in the field with various viewpoints ran through scenarios at a forum organized by New York University and law firm Sidley Austin on Thursday.

Vice President Joe Biden headlined the event, breezing by the subject except to call "the role of big money" in our system "corrupting," and saying, "If you want to change overnight the way of the electoral process in America, have public financing."

Experts argued about what form that corruption -- if it exists -- takes, with some disputing Biden's suggested cure. David Keating, president of the conservative Center for Competitive Politics, maintained there is no evidence stricter contribution limits affect the amount of corruption in politics. Others framed the issue differently, saying that politicians will be more likely to listen to policy advice from their biggest supporters.

"The concern is one about rising inequality that comes from the greatest wealth transforming economic power into political power," said Richard Hasen, a professor at the University of California at Irvine who runs a well-respected campaign finance blog.

Getting money out of the system or silencing voices isn't necessarily the answer, added David Donnelly, president and CEO of the group Every Voice. Advocates should instead try to incentivize small donors through public matching programs or vouchers, he said, or a set amount of money from the government given to the public for them to use for political donations. 

Former Republican National Committee general counsel Benjamin Ginsberg called that idea "food stamps for politicians," while NYU law professor Samuel Issacharoff said that even though public financing may work on the state and local level, it doesn't scale to federal races.

Hasen suggested vouchers be given to citizens to route first through political parties, in order to strengthen the institutions that have lost power with coordination rules and limits on party spending.

The diminishing of the Democratic and Republican parties led outside groups to fill the void, panelists said, with their ability to spend unlimited amounts of money and take charge of the messaging. This shift in power could help explain the "rise in extremism," because messages aren't being filtered through a consistent institution.

"Candidates have agendas set by outside groups," Ginsberg said. "It's a messy nonsensical system if the goal is to have members who get elected pay some degree of adherence to party principles as opposed to special party interests."

And that may have contributed to the stagnation in Congress.

"The parties are weaker so their coordination function is diminished, which makes them unable to deliver [policy] like when they could cut deals," Issacharoff said. "If you diminish the fuel for central mediating, money will simply reinforce what we have."

However, Hasen predicted the new Supreme Court will further loosen campaign finance restrictions, with limits on contributions to parties the next to go. Perhaps instead of limits, the focus should be on accountability and knowing who the big players are, he and others suggested.

"If you give $10 million directly and it is transparent, then at least there's an accountability for taking that $10 million," Issacharoff said. "If you launder it through an LLC that goes through a super PAC, there's no identification of the institutional backing of the money, and there's no apparent accountability. We're probably in the worst of all worlds right now."

On the note of transparency: John J. Kuster, a partner at Sidley Austin LLP, which sponsored the panel, boasted about the number of former public officials who have joined their ranks. (We have 61 Sidley employees in our Revolving Door database.) Contributions from employees and PAC of the global law firm (of which President Obama and the First Lady are alums) typically trend blue; about 75 percent of the $1.1 million they donated this year went to Democratic candidates of committees. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton benefited from the largest chunk, $370,000. The firm's lobbying arm earned $3.7 million in the first three quarters of 2016, the largest client being biotechnology company Intrexon, which paid the firm $1.2 million through Sept. 30.