Common Causes

Bigger government equals more money spent on campaigns.


Twenty-two years after the first big federal law controlling campaign financing was passed, the problems it was supposed to address are worse than ever. Incumbents are reelected at ever greater rates–even in the "revolutionary" election of 1994, 91 percent of the incumbents standing won reelection. Money spent on campaigns still rises–spending on federal legislative campaigns has increased an inflation-adjusted 180 percent since 1976. Special interest influence over the electoral process seems no less powerful than it ever was.

But any proposed reform that further restricts individuals' ability to spend money as they choose on campaigns is attacking the symptoms and not the cause, argues a new study from John R. Lott Jr., a law and economics fellow at the University of Chicago Law School.

Lott found that the most convincing explanation for rising campaign expenditures is rising government expenditures. When the prize gets bigger, people will expend more energy on the contest to win it. In fact, after analyzing data from decades of federal and state legislative campaigns, and gubernatorial campaigns, Lott says the real conundrum is why campaign expenditures are as small as they are, given what's at stake.

Lott performed mathematical analyses on campaign spending data compared with government spending levels for the relevant offices, as well as other possible causes of increased campaign spending. "The bottom line is, even when you control for all the other possible effects, between 60 and 80 percent of the growth across time in campaign expenditures can be linked with increased government spending," Lott says. "The irony is that many of the same people complaining about campaign spending also tend to want larger government."