Reformers say HR 1 will fortify our democracy. Science shows it won’t

Past campaign finance reform efforts have had little impact on how Americans view the democratic process

Rep. John Sarbanes and Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a March 2020 event to mark the one-year anniversary of the passage of HR 1. Science shows that such campaign finance reform efforts have no meaningful impact on trust in government, Primo and Milyo write.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. John Sarbanes and Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a March 2020 event to mark the one-year anniversary of the passage of HR 1. Science shows that such campaign finance reform efforts have no meaningful impact on trust in government, Primo and Milyo write. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 26, 2021 at 2:35pm

The Biden administration has been lauded for pledging to make “evidence-based decisions guided by the best available science and data.”

This promise will soon be put to the test when Congress considers HR 1, the For the People Act of 2021. The campaign finance portion of the bill — a top priority for the Biden administration — includes stricter disclosure requirements, a “small dollar” public financing system for federal offices, a call for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and changes to the composition of the Federal Election Commission.

The problem for the administration is that the legislation is riddled with claims that do not hold up when subjected to scientific scrutiny. For instance, the legislation offers the promise of “fortifying our democracy” against, among other evils, the “torrent of money flowing into our political system,” thereby protecting “the integrity of democracy.” (There is also a “flood” of money from “wealthy special interests” in our elections, the legislation tells us. Reformers like their liquid metaphors.)

When a similar bill made its way through the House in 2019, The New York Times described it as “devised to restore public trust in government,” while Speaker Nancy Pelosi said its campaign finance component was “about ending skepticism. … It’s about money in politics and how that destroys the confidence people have in the process.”

These calls for change speak directly to the Supreme Court’s justifications for upholding the constitutionality of restrictions on political speech: to reduce corruption or the appearance of corruption, which the court explicitly ties to maintaining faith in government.

But do such restrictions work as intended? To find out, we undertook the largest examination to date of survey data on attitudes toward money in politics, analyzing nearly 60,000 individual responses to over 50 surveys conducted between 1987 and 2017. This time period witnessed major changes to campaign finance laws at the state and federal levels, as well as several key campaign finance decisions by the courts, including Citizens United.

The variation in campaign finance laws between states and across states over time allowed us to isolate the effects of these laws on public attitudes. Controlling for other individual and institutional factors that could influence trust, we found there was no meaningful relationship between state campaign finance laws and trust in state government during this time period. This was true for limits on contributions to candidates, public financing laws and independent expenditure bans (the kinds ruled unconstitutional by Citizens United).

Another way to frame the findings, perhaps one more jarring for reformers: There was no difference in levels of trust between a fully deregulated system and a fully regulated system with limits on contributions, bans on independent expenditures and public financing of campaigns.

So why doesn’t campaign finance reform have more of an impact on public perceptions? One possible explanation is that popular mistrust of government is the product of the contentious nature of democratic politics in a pluralistic society, which, while often blamed on the role of money in politics, is about much more. In fact, when we surveyed Americans in 2016, nearly two-thirds of respondents viewed seeking media coverage or making the other party look bad (in other words, politics) as potentially corrupt behavior by a politician. Seen in this light, it perhaps is no surprise that campaign finance reforms — or other institutional or electoral reforms, for that matter — have little impact on public perceptions.

In our research, we even found evidence that imperfect reform implementation or unrealized goals make things worse, not better. When reforms don’t work as advertised, or politicians make end runs around them, Americans get cynical. What’s more, in a 2016 survey experiment we designed, reformers’ claims that the system is “rigged” by corporations and other interest were shown to actually hurt Americans’ confidence in government. This rhetoric, whether it comes from the mouth of Donald Trump or a campaign finance reformer, is not innocuous.

One response to our findings might be that we just need to do reform better. Reforms just need to be bolder … and bigger. But we now have forty years of experimentation with campaign finance reform and virtually no evidence that it actually improves how Americans view their democracy. And decades of social science research on democracy suggests there is no reason to believe that campaign finance reforms, which are themselves the products of a democratic process, are going to improve that process in meaningful ways.

The onus is now on reformers — and a president pledging to use scientific evidence to make decisions — to demonstrate why the next incarnation of reform will be any different.

David M. Primo is a professor of political science and business administration at the University of Rochester.

Jeffrey D. Milyo is a professor of economics and chair of the economics department at the University of Missouri.

They are co-authors of Campaign Finance and American Democracy: What the Public Really Thinks and Why It Matters, from which portions of this op-ed are drawn. Both serve as expert witnesses in campaign finance litigation.