Campaign finance rules emphasize sunlight. For example, all campaign donations above a modest amount (e.g., $200) must be publicly disclosed. That allows everyone to see who is providing financial support to which candidates.
That sounds good if you are worried about campaign contributions buying undue access to our elected leaders.
As I noted last year, however, that sunshine comes with costs. For example, it makes quid pro quo’s easier. Why? Because candidates know who is financing them. A completely anonymous system – in which no one, including candidates, knows the identity of donors — would make explicit quid pro quo’s much more difficult.
Full disclosure also discourages individuals from making donations that would be unpopular with their relatives, friends, neighbors, and employers. You can make anonymous donations to unpopular causes to your heart’s content without anyone knowing. But if you make even a modest donation to an unpopular political candidate that’s a matter of easily-Googleable public record. That can be a real deterrent.
Writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, James L. Huffman raises a related concern: that disclosure stacks the deck in favor of incumbent politicians:
[P]ublic disclosure serves the interests of incumbents running for re-election by discouraging support for challengers. Here’s how it works.
A challenger seeks a contribution from a person known to support candidates of the challenger’s party. The potential supporter responds: “I’m glad you’re running. I agree with you on almost everything. But I can’t support you because I cannot risk getting my business crosswise with the incumbent who is likely to be re-elected.”
Disclosure makes threats possible, and fears of retribution plausible. Within weeks of a contribution of $200 or more, the contributor’s name appears on the public record. Contributors know this, and they know that supporting the challenger can, should the challenger lose, have consequences in terms of future attention to their interests. Of course no incumbent will admit to issuing threats or seeking retribution, but the perception that both exist is widespread.
Huffman was the unsuccessful Republican nominee in Oregon’s Senate race in 2010. Depending on your view, that might mean that he speaks from experience or that he suffers from sour grapes. Without evidence, there’s no way to know how much, if at all, such concerns arose in his race.
But the broader issue he raises is worth pondering. Sunshine is sometimes the best disinfectant. But it also lets bad actors see what’s going on.