Campaign finance reform strikes me as a solution in constant search for a problem. It's actually quite hard to identify specific and egregious incidents of bribery that would have been prevented by removing private funding from campaigns. Yes, there are occasional abuses -- Rod Blagojevich selling an Illinois senate seat, Tom DeLay shaking down lobbying firms in exchange for access, Duke Cunningham offering contracts to a military contractor in exchange for a yacht -- but these are exceedingly rare and, more importantly, the abusers were caught and convicted under existing laws. But these are not the problems reformers tend to highlight. Rather, they voice a more general concern that everything "bad" in American politics stems from the private financing of campaigns. Note the opening statement on Get Money Out's website:
Bailouts. War. Unemployment. Our government is bought, and we’re angry.The insinuation is that if our campaigns were publicly financed, there'd have been no bailouts or war, and that unemployment would be lower. This is pretty ridiculous on its face (who exactly is lobbying for high unemployment, and who in Congress or the White House is keeping unemployment high to satisfy donors?), and one could easily point to countries with publicly-financed campaigns that have nonetheless found themselves with persistent high unemployment and prolonged wars in recent years. Nonetheless, the reformers persist in their quest.
One might ask, what's the harm? That is, maybe driving private money out of elections wouldn't exactly create Heaven on Earth, but maybe it would make politics a bit cleaner and make our officeholders more representative of our needs. Why not try it?
I'm actually working on a book on this very topic right now, but here's the quick answer: campaign finance reform, to a very large extent, simply hasn't worked. That is, every time a government tries to enact a specific contribution or spending limit to reduce the amount of money in elections (FECA, BCRA, you name it), innovative donors and candidates figure out ways around it. You want to give more than the limit to a group of candidates? Fine, just donate to a 527 or some sort of independent expenditure committee that can spend unlimited amounts on behalf of a candidate. Colorado's Four Millionaires showed how this can be done. This is part of the reason that, despite decades of campaign finance reform, the amount spent in campaigns continues to rise, much faster than inflation.
What's more, all this regulation has a price. If you want to know who contributed to the campaign of a president or a senator or a state legislator, it's not as easy to figure it out as it used to be. All these webs of committees that have cropped up to get around campaign finance limits end up obscuring the path of the money. Some of the money comes from individual donors, who can be identified in FEC records, but lots of it comes from groups who only have minimal disclosure requirements, and the donors to those groups may be other groups of people bundled together. Who's backing a candidate? It's almost impossible to tell nowadays.
The end result is that these reforms designed to reduce the role of money in campaigns not only don't end up reducing the role of money in campaigns, but they actually reduce accountability and transparency.
Update: I had missed Matt Yglesias' take on this same topic last month (h/t Andrew Long). He notes that banning all contributions to campaigns tends to make it difficult for anyone to run for office, and wonders just what problem this solves. He also cites Dylan Rattigan's specific proposed constitutional amendment:
No person, corporation or business entity of any type, domestic or foreign, shall be allowed to contribute money, directly or indirectly, to any candidate for Federal office or to contribute money on behalf of or opposed to any type of campaign for Federal office [emphasis added].Beyond the problems noted above, it seems odd to write a rule into the U.S. Constitution proscribing behavior by people who are not Americans. I'd think it would make somewhat more sense if the candidate, rather than the prospective donor, were the subject of the rule.