How campaign finance regulation contributes to congressional dysfunction

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Congressional dysfunction may have hit an all time high (or is it low?). Despite sizable legislative majorities, Republicans are unable to pass basic legislation or even organize their caucus. Political polarization may be part of the reason (although not necessarily in the way some might expect). Good government reforms intended to make politicans more responsive to the people may have contributed to legislative dysfunction as well.

Writing in Slate, Reihan Salam explains some of the reasons why campaign finance regulation deserves some of the blame.

Successive waves of campaign finance regulation have been designed to limit the influence of money in politics. What these regulations have actually done is quite different. In Better Parties, Better Government, Joel Gora and Peter Wallison observe that today's campaign finance regulations limit the extent to which candidates can coordinate their fundraising and campaigning efforts with central party organizations, so candidates have to build their own fundraising networks. Building such a network is fairly easy for those who've spent their lives around the very wealthy or who are very wealthy themselves. But it is much harder for less wealthy individuals who have dedicated their lives to public service or who for whatever reason aren't skilled in the art of wheedling money out of strangers.

What does any of this have to do with the House Freedom Caucus? Because central party organizations can't freely coordinate with candidates, and because candidates have to raise the bulk of their campaign cash independently, the parties have very little leverage over candidates. Members are far less afraid of alienating their leaders and far more afraid of alienating their donors. Who cares if John Boehner is mad at me? What counts is that by declaring war on the GOP leadership, and by declaring that all those who want to avoid a government shutdown are sellouts, I can raise money off of apocalyptic Boehner-bashing emails and Facebook posts.

That's not all. Current campaign finance regulations also impede the development of relationships among members of Congress, particularly across the aisle, that can serve as the basis for compromise and deal-making. Because current laws limit the size of campaign contributions, legislators must raise the millions of dollars necessary to run a reelection campaign from a larger number of individuals—and this takes time. So when members of Congress have a spare moment, they head to fundraising events or hit the phones. Time that could be spent interacting with other members of Congress—or even boning up on policy substance—are instead spent chasing after money.

Were limits on campaign contributions less stringent (or even nonexistent), members of Congress could raise the amount of money necessary for their campaigns in far less time, leaving far more time for them to actually do their jobs, develop a meaningful understanding of policy issues and develop the relationships upon which successful legislative initiatives are built.

Campaign finance regulation is hardly the only cause of congressional dysfunction; there's plenty of blame to go around. Yet it should be pretty clear that campaign finance rules—insofar as they handicap party organizations, encourage donations to less accountable organizations and force legislators to devote more time to fundraising—make Congress less functional than it would otherwise be.