Even as campaign finance reformers celebrated the long-awaited passage of the McCain-Feingold bill this spring, they cautioned the public not to assume the fight for reform was over. “This bill will only thwart the special interests for so long,” Senator McCain himself predicted. “Twenty years from now, they will have figured out other ways to get around it, and another couple of senators will be fighting to break the endless cycle of corruption and reform.” While McCain-Feingold is a significant legislative accomplishment that will help to plug the gaping soft-money hole in the existing system, these reformers explained, there are still gaps through which private money can exert undue political influence–and the fight to close them is just beginning.
This is the way campaign finance reform has worked since the first piece of remedial legislation was passed in 1907–a cycle of public outrage, stopgap legislation and new forms of abuse, prompting further outrage. Lasting solutions have so far proven elusive–in large part because of the Supreme Court’s 1976 Buckley v. Valeo ruling that campaign spending limits are unconstitutional. So reformers are stuck fighting with more or less the same tools they’ve always used: contribution limits, voluntary spending limits, public financing and full disclosure of funding sources.
The limited effectiveness of these tools has prompted two Yale Law professors, Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres, to offer a radical rethinking of the problem. Ackerman–who last attracted public notice with his book The Stakeholder Society, in which he proposed to eliminate chronic economic injustice by giving every young American adult a stake of $80,000, financed by an annual wealth tax–and Ayers clearly have no qualms about tackling big problems. Their new book, Voting With Dollars, starts with a simple and seductive question: If the old reform tools aren’t working, why not try new ones? Rather than imposing increasingly complicated contribution and spending limits, they suggest removing them. Rather than relying on bureaucracies to distribute public funds to candidates, they say, let the voters do it directly. And rather than mandating complete disclosure of politicians’ funding sources, they propose keeping such information completely secret–especially from the politicians themselves.
At the core of Ackerman and Ayres’s proposal is what they call the “secret donation booth.” Like votes, the authors argue, campaign contributions should be made anonymously. That way, private interests could not influence elected officials with their money, because there would be no way for a contributor to prove that he had given money to a candidate. (So as not to discourage citizens of average means from donating modest amounts by denying them the ability to take credit for their gifts, Ackerman and Ayres permit the government to confirm that a donor has given up to $200.)
Just as the introduction of the secret ballot in the late nineteenth century put an end to the then-common practice of vote-buying, the authors assert that the implementation of a secret donation booth (in actuality, a blind trust administered by the FEC) would eliminate influence-buying. Sure, John Richman might claim he’s given a million to Jane Candidate, but such unverifiable talk is cheap, and politicians will attach to such assurances the same minimal weight they attach to promised votes. Once that avenue of political influence is closed off, Ackerman and Ayres reason, donors interested solely in the corrupting power of their contributions will have no reason to pour their money into politics, and private giving will be left to those few donors motivated by pure political ideology.