Even in the wake of the most sweeping campaign finance reform law to be enacted in three decades, further significant reform is inevitable. Special interest money continues to flow through loopholes in the Act, and the Presidential Election Campaign Fund is near collapse. The next reform should encourage broader participation in the political process by individual citizens, both to dilute the power of special interests and to serve independent democratic values that recent Supreme Court jurisprudence has identified as vital to meaningful reform. We propose adopting a refundable tax credit of $100/taxpayer for political contributions to federal candidates and national parties; the credit would be targeted to lower- and middle-income Americans. A refundable tax credit is equivalent to giving each eligible citizen up to $100 annually to use for political contributions. We also present data about the relative importance of political contributions by special interests (corporate, labor and other PACs) and individuals that undermine many of the assumptions on which past reform has been based and that have not been discussed in the legal literature. The data clearly show that small contributions by individuals are the dominant source of money in campaigns, and that the influence of special interest money is subtle, appearing to “purchase” benefits like access, a place on the agenda, and minor policy details. Working from an accurate picture of who really pays for politics, and drawing from the experience at the federal and state levels with similar tax refund programs, we present the tax credit as a reform that is simple, easy to administer, and likely to improve political participation by average Americans. Thus, our proposal, unlike the complicated voucher plan with anonymity put forward by Ackerman and Ayres, is likely to be adopted by Congress; moreover, it will appeal to a bipartisan consensus because it mixes public funding with a decentralized allocation mechanism using a tax subsidy.
Date of this Version
John de Figueiredo and Elizabeth Garrett, "Paying for Politics" (September 2004). University of Southern California Law and Economics Working Paper Series. Working Paper 14.