Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Make Campaign Donations Anonymous

For years now the debate about campaign finance has sought to prune a shrubbery of laws like a neurotic gardener: perhaps if we lowered a donating limit here or offered a bit more disclosure there then the whole plant would sit much better.

What these proposals have failed to do is fully satisfy two competing and compelling interests. We need to protect the integrity of the law-making process from wealthy individuals and corporate interests who seek to purchase access and influence. However, donating to a candidate so he can get his message out is speech, and it ought to receive the firmest first amendment protection we can offer it. What is the best way to balance these concerns?

A few years ago Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres offered a bold proposal: make campaign contributions anonymous. Political donors would be required to donate their monies to a third party -- perhaps the FEC. Then the FEC would give these contributions to the candidates in lump sums without telling them where the monies came from. After respectable period -- say ten or twenty years -- disclosure of the donors' identities could be made.

What this would do is immediately destroy the practice of buying access -- or even votes -- with campaign contributions. Donors could give money to candidates because they agreed with them, but giving money to influence lawmakers or assure access would be ineffective. Of course, someone could say "hey, I gave $2,000 to your campaign, Congressman! Let's take a meeting." But the Congressman would not know whether they were telling the truth or not. They could just as easily be making it up.

I am yet to hear a compelling argument against this proposal. As best as I can tell, the only reason it hasn't been advanced as an option is because it would put incumbents at a disadvantage... and unfortunately, incumbents would have to be the ones to enact it.

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