Thursday, March 11, 2004

Can Parties Survive Without Fat Checks?
Anthony Corrado, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute, has a twenty page paper here analyzing the impacts of the recently passed Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) on the two major political parties.

George Washington warned us against over-reliance on political parties in his farewell address. These days, some experts seem to think it would be impossible to have democracy without them, forgetting that a great many Americans don't belong to any political party and seem to be doing just fine.

If a group of like-minded citizens want to get together and agree upon a platform of issues they agree upon, and then certify that some candidates support those issues by giving them an official name like "Republican" or "Democrat" that's helpful to democracy. These party labels can provide helpful, and low cost, information to voters on election day.

But modern parties hardly resemble this original idea. Instead, candidates hardly feel the need to embrace their parties platform, so its hard to know what anyone stands for anymore. Instead, parties have become just another vehicle for extremely wealthy interests to hand pick our elected officials.

BCRA aimed to restore some integrity to the parties by banning them from raising so-called soft money from corporations and labor unions. But at the same time, Corrado notes that BCRA radically increased the amount that parties can raise from fat cats -- up to $57,500 every two years. As a result, the political parties combined are now raising more money than they did during the last presidential election cycle before BCRA was in effect. So, BCRA may have shuffled the decks a bit, but it didn't necessarily benefit the rest of us much.

However, there is some good news in Corrado's report. Even though nothing prevented them from raising money from the rest of us before, it seems that both parties are now making a concerted effort to raise small contributions. Corrado doesn't define what he means by small, but it clearly looks like parties are doing better. The Republican National Committee reports that it has recruited 1 million new donors since President Bush took office. Many are no doubt oil executives and fat cats, but a good chunk must be regular folks too. The Democrats too seem to be getting the picture and has increased its total amount of direct mail donors from 400,000 to $1 million.

The sooner the parties start raising all of their funds from ordinary citizens, the sooner we'll have a political system that gives voters real choices on the issues they care about and doesn't screen out candidates and issues that scare wealthy interests but appeal to the rest of us.

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