Defending The People’s Pledge

Defending The People's Pledge

Does the Pledge keep money out of politics? Yes!

Joanna Weiss sounds surprisingly like Chief Justice John Roberts in her column “It’s time to let go of the People’s Pledge” (Boston Globe, June 22, 2014). Like Roberts, she argues that strong campaign finance disclosure laws are sufficient to cure what ails democracy in the post-Citizens United era.

In this post I respond to some of the questions raised by Weiss in her column and on Twitter.

First, did the People’s Pledge elevate debate?  Absolutely.

At the conclusion of the Brown-Warren race we took a close look at the stats here and in comparable U.S. Senate races across the country. Using analysis compiled by the Wesleyan Media Project and the Center for Media Analysis Group, we found that Massachusetts had half the negative advertising that comparable senate races in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Virginia had. A full 97% of the ads run by outside groups in those states were negative. Yeah, the Brown-Warren race wasn’t perfect, but it was a whole lot better than we would have gotten otherwise. Why? The People’s Pledge forces negative ads to be run by the campaigns themselves and they pay a steep price by putting their face on it. Joanna is just plain wrong in claiming that outside ads reflect on the candidate. That’s the whole point. The candidate can disavow the ad AND get the benefit of its impact. There may be a few instances where an ad caused collateral damage to a candidate but these rare exceptions don’t prove the rule.

Does the Pledge keep money out of politics?  Yes!

Hard money raised by political campaigns is limited to $500 per donor per year in Massachusetts and $2,600 per federal election. The limits are in place to ensure that candidates can’t be easily bought and that a broader spectrum of Americans participate in funding campaigns. Outside money has no such limits and is typically financed by billionaires throwing in millions. The top 15 donors in comparable races (VA, WI, OH) contributed an average of $7.6 million each. In the Brown/Warren race, thanks to the People’s Pledge, small donors contributed three times more than did big donors. In VA, MI, OH, small donors were dwarfed 6-1.

Again, the exception does not prove the rule. The Steyer airplane ad could have been addressed by the language of the Pledge. As law professor and former Warren staffer Ganesh Sitaraman writes, there are ways to close these loopholes and bad-acting should be anticipated by the terms of the Pledge.

Does the Pledge discourage 3rd party involvement? Yes. (Weiss actually agrees with this but, like Chief Justice Roberts, claims that the more spending the better—as long as it is disclosed.)

But is disclosure really enough? Common Cause believes that disclosure is necessary but not sufficient. Do we really want to cede our elected officials to millionaires and billionaires and special interests that can throw down millions to fund campaigns? What about ‘we the people’? Disclosure does not prevent candidates from  becoming wholly-owned subsidiaries with little choice for the voter.

Money in politics corrupts the process and steers public policy to the richest segment of the population and away from the middle class and poor who cannot play the game. There is some, but not much, difference between money given to a SuperPAC and money given to a candidate. Stephen Colbert hilariously showed just how porous these lines are as he transitioned from SuperPAC to candidate and back. A new report shows how significant the impact is.

The People’s Pledge is a great way to obtain three huge benefits without running afoul of the Supreme Court’s rulings or needing a constitutional amendment. It 1) drastically reduces big money in politics; 2) cuts in half negative advertising; and 3) promotes disclosure. On this last item: Yes, Massachusetts is about to pass (we hope!) a great disclosure bill. But no legislation is perfect, nor will it necessarily attain disclosure on the timetable we want. The Koch brothers created 10 different pass-through organizations to hide their donation in California. It took the California enforcement agency a long time to sort through their deception. Similar subterfuge will likely happen here in Massachusetts, too, and although we may ultimately uncover the culprit, it won’t always be in time for voters to make informed decisions. Not so with donations to a candidate’s campaign. At $500 a pop, hiding the identity of a donor just does not happen or have the same impact.

Long and short: while the political posturing around it is often annoying, the People’s Pledge is well worth the trouble.