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Here's what Hillary Clinton's money in politics plan gets right, what it gets wrong, and what it misses

Hillary Clinton speaks to guests during a campaign event at Tabor Home Vineyards and Winery on August 26, 2015, in Baldwin, Iowa.
Hillary Clinton speaks to guests during a campaign event at Tabor Home Vineyards and Winery on August 26, 2015, in Baldwin, Iowa.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton has now released a three-pronged campaign finance proposal, fleshing out the fourth of her four fights, "Revitalizing Our Democracy."

I'm glad to see her support a small-donor matching system, but disappointed that she put overturning Citizens United first on her list. I'm also disappointed to see that she makes no mention of lobbying, when lobbying involves far more money than campaigns. For example, corporations spend about 13 times more on their lobbying expenditures than they do on their corporate PACs.

Overall, the Clinton reform plan doesn't break much new ground. It collects several ideas that have been circulating around the campaign finance reform movement for a few years, ideas that by now have wide support.

"Overturning Citizens United"

The first piece of Clinton's plan is "Overturning Citizens United." To do this, she will "appoint Supreme Court justices who value the right to vote over the right of billionaires to buy elections." And she will (drum roll, please) ... "Support a constitutional amendment." Sigh.

As far as Supreme Court litmus tests go, it's as good as any other. And if Clinton wants to use this as a reminder that when you are electing a president, you are also electing a Supreme Court justice appointer, that's fine.

The constitutional amendment is an evasion. Yes, it's a favorite cause among liberal activists, and the now standard cri de coeur to rally the base on money in politics issues. But there are two serious problems in elevating the 2010 Citizens United decision to the top of the agenda.

The first is that it's not like the pre-2010 era marked some halcyon Eden in American campaign finance laws, or in American politics generally. Wealthy donors still played the same gatekeeper role in determining who could be a viable candidate, and as I remember it, corporations were still quite powerful in Washington. Wealthy billionaires could still spend unlimited amounts on campaigns (remember when a bunch of liberal billionaires spent millions in 2004 to try to defeat George W. Bush?). Yes, campaign finance has grown more unequal. But it's not like reversing Citizens United would bring us back to some magical happy place of blissful representative democracy.

The second is that the odds of passing a constitutional amendment in these divided times are so vanishingly small to be statistically indistinguishable from zero. While advocates of a constitutional amendment will say it is a useful organizing tool, it seems to me a lot of wasted energy. Why highlight a totally unrealistic solution?

The answer, of course, is that it is fundraising gold. In a recent post here on Polyarchy, my colleague Mark Schmitt noted, "The constitutional amendment has been a fundraising gimmick for Democrats and little else, since they know it will never happen. Every Senate Democrat up for reelection in 2014 used it in their fundraising emails." Schmitt also highlighted a recent American Prospect interview with Zephyr Teachout, who said, "I'm really skeptical of politicians who aren't serious about it and use the phrase ‘constitutional amendment' in order to raise money." Agreed.

Fortunately, Clinton's plan goes beyond just the fundraising gold of Citizens United. But its preeminent place in her plan makes me take the whole thing just a little less seriously.

"Ending secret, unaccountable money in politics"

If overturning Citizens United is an issue over which a president has no power beyond rhetoric, requiring corporate spending disclosure is an issue where a president actually has considerable power. As president, Clinton could, as she proposes, "sign an Executive order requiring government contractors to fully disclose all political spending." A large coalition of reform groups advocate this, and this Brennan Center white paper makes a good case for it. Lots of senators and lots of House members also support it.

A similar coalition of 55 groups, along with 44 senators, also advocate another piece of Clinton's disclosure package: "Promote SEC rulemaking requiring publicly traded companies to disclose all political spending to their shareholders."

Clinton would also advocate for "federal legislation to require effective public disclosure of political spending." Presumably, she means something like the Disclose Act, which would require 501(c)(4) "dark money" organizations to disclose their donors, among other things. Senate Republicans killed the proposal in July 2012.

As far as reform policies go, these should be easy wins built on common-sense values. It's always good to have more information about what corporations and other interested parties are spending on politics. We know that so-called "dark money" is increasing as a share of political spending, and all this secret money floating around elections contributes to the growing sense that the whole process is just rotten and corrupt.

Still, there are limits to the impact of disclosure. They don't do much to change the fundamental balance of power; they just help us better assess how far we are from some idealized balance of power. So, by all means, take the easy wins, if you can get them. But just be realistic about what they can accomplish.

"Amplifying the voices of everyday Americans"

Number three on the Clinton list is a small-donor campaign finance matching system. If I were making a list of campaign finance reforms, I'd put this as No. 1, 2, and 3.

I'm assuming the details of proposal will be modeled on the leading Democratic bill, Rep. John Sarbanes's Government by the People Act, which would create a six-to-one public match for small donor contributions plus a small-donor tax credit, among other things.

It's a great proposal, and, like Rep. Sarbanes, I think it would make a difference in how candidates run for office and which candidates choose to run in the first place. Rather than hop from K Street fundraiser to Wall Street fundraiser to law firm partner fundraiser, candidates might take a little more time to throw house parties where they can get to know their constituents, and more constituents might become donors. Sarbanes's optimistic pitch is that these new rules would change the calculus for "the rational small donor who right now isn't going to give $25 because they've figured out that it's not going to matter."

The biggest problem now in running for office is that it's very hard to get elected without earning the support of a large cadre of wealthy donors, or a party that is mostly funded by wealthy donors. A small-donor matching system would create an alternative route for candidates to run for office without genuflecting to the policy preferences of wealthy donors. I hope Clinton gives us some full-throated high-profile advocacy for this.

But what about the lobbying?

My major concern about Clinton's proposals is that they focus entirely on campaign finance, ignoring the fact that campaign contributions are only one piece of the influence game. By my calculations, corporations spend 13 times more on lobbying than they do on their PACs. They do so because that's where the action is. So why not devote some reform attention to lobbying?

Reducing candidates' reliance on money from wealthy donors and special interests is obviously important. But members of Congress still need to do the day-to-day business of governing. And that requires considerable resources to understand existing policy and make new policy. This is why lobbying is so important. It is the source of information and knowledge in the policymaking process.

As I explained in a Washington Post Monkey Cage blog article earlier this year:

Organized interests collectively report $3.2 billion a year in lobbying expenditures, and probably equally or greater amounts on non-reported lobbying-related activities. The most active organizations are now hiring upwards of 100 lobbyists to represent them. These statistics alone should tell us that special interests don't "buy" politicians with campaign contributions. If they did, there'd be no point in spending all that money to hire lobbyists.

The reason to hire so many lobbyists is that genuine political influence is actually hard work. It requires building a compelling case and then making that case over and over and over again. It means being in multiple places at once. Most of the time in Washington, not much is happening at the measurable surface.

But in the slow churn of the "war of position," relationships are being maintained. Coalitions are being built. Worldviews are being reiterated. Legislation is being drafted and vetted. Carefully selected constituents are being brought in to tell carefully rehearsed stories. People are talking to other people, trying to figure out who will do what, what ideas are "serious" and "not serious," what has a chance of moving, what isn't going anywhere, what the press will cover, what voters might care about, and countless other attempts to shape the "common knowledge" of Washington.

This is why I've argued that we need to invest seriously in congressional capacity. Corporations now spend about $2.6 billion a year on reported lobbying expenditures — more than the $2 billion we spend to fund the House ($1.16 billion) and Senate ($820 million). Congress needs independent capacity to think for itself, without having to rely on corporate-provided lobbyists.

Understandably, President Hillary Clinton might not be particularly interested in boosting congressional staff, since strengthening the legislative branch might undermine some of the power of the executive branch. (Though I'd argue that it's in the long-term best interests of the country to have a competent Congress, and would probably make Congress-executive relations more productive.)

But Clinton might also think about staff capacity in executive-branch agencies. While administrative agencies generally have more qualified and expert staff than Congress, they also sometimes struggle to compete with the private sector for top talent. Some of this is because of salaries, and some of this is because of unnecessarily elaborate hiring and firing processes that test the patience of talented people who first want the job and then wonder why there is so much dead weight once they get the job.

But the larger point is that much of the political influence of special interests, especially corporations, comes from the fact that the government has inadequate policy capacity to tackle increasingly complex issues on its own, and is thus forced to rely on interested parties to provide knowledge and expertise, regardless of how much these interested parties give in campaign contributions.

Understandably, more spending for government staff doesn't generate the same poll-tested base-rallying excitement as "Overturn Citizens United!" But when it comes to reducing special interest influence in politics, it would have a far greater influence.