If You Want Politicians To Spend Less Time Fundraising, Give Them Free Money

Tom Lee thinks he disagrees with me about the merits of trying to get money out of politics, but my guess is that if he ponders this issue further, he’ll agree that there’s a mismatch between means and ends here. For example:

I think the most compelling argument for defunding elections is that it might select for a different class of politician. I’ve read estimates from retired congressmen that put the share of their time spent fundraising in the 30% range. That’s insane. To endure the rigors of constantly begging wealthy supporters for large sums of money — to say nothing of excelling at it — must require a very strange set of skills. I suspect that those skills don’t relate much to aptitude for governing. And I suspect that that time investment comes at the expense of other duties. I’m not naive enough to think we’d have a wave election that stuffed Capitol Hill with policy experts. But perhaps we’d get a few, along with some better orators, coalition-builders, horse-traders and glad-handers.

I completely agree that these are huge problems. But are these problems that would be solved by banning formal campaign contributions? I think not. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign is subject to various constraints in its ability to raise funds, so Romney spends some of his time attending fundraisers for an “independent” pro-Romney superPAC.

What you need to cut down on the time politicians spend fundraising isn’t less money in politics. It’s easy money. Generous public financing of the campaign of any major party nominee for Congress would ensure that even a terrible fundraiser stands of chance of getting elected. Being bad would still be a disadvantage. But today it’s a disadvantage to be ugly, stupid, inarticulate, or corrupt, and yet we still have ugly, stupid, inarticulate, and corrupt members of Congress. What we don’t have are members of Congress who can’t raise money. Public financing makes it happen. Public financing also does much more than any number of anti-gerrymandering schemes to reduce the number of totally uncompetitive elections out there. Every district, no matter how drawn, has a median voter. What many districts lack is a median voter whose views are compatible with the demands of the opposition party’s fundraising base.