New CFI Report: Unlimited Party Contributions Don’t Help Ease Polarization

Release: (my emphasis)

The Campaign Finance Institute (CFI) today is releasing a new study entitled Party Contribution Limits and Polarization. The study refutes one of the policy solutions put forward in recent years for a problem that almost everyone acknowledges to be serious.

The new study was co-authored by Michael J. Malbin and Charles R. Hunt. Malbin is CFI’s co-founder and executive director as well as being Professor of Political Science at the University at Albany, SUNY. Hunt is a graduate research assistant at CFI as well as a Ph.D. student in Government and Politics at the University of Maryland.

Roughly two years ago, at about the time John Boehner’s speakership was unraveling, there was a significant public dispute among scholars about the causes of the polarization and gridlock that led to the Speaker’s undoing. Since then, the scholarly dispute has receded from public attention. However, the political and governing issues remain with us. The level of toxicity in Congress and many state legislatures remains high. As a result, there is ample reason to re-open the conversation.

One much-cited book at the time offered evidence claiming to show that removing limits on contributions to the political parties (to put them on an equal footing with Super-PACs) would strengthen the parties, leading to the election of more moderate public officials, thereby decreasing polarization in legislatures. Offered to support this was comparative state evidence claiming to show legislatures to be less polarized in states without contribution limits.

Subsequent to this book, another was published that showed polarization to be closely linked to the competition for majority control over the branches of government. Where legislators saw a plausible chance to gain or lose their party’s majority, they were less likely to cooperate across the aisle to reach policy solutions.

Both studies seemed plausible. Unfortunately, neither tested the two explanations against each other. The current CFI study does that. The results were definitive. Removing party contribution limits would do nothing to affect polarization in Congress or state legislatures.

Make no mistake: polarization is a major problem. However, there are also major problems with mega-donors encouraged by unlimited contributions, as well as with the low rates of donor participation by American citizens. Each should be addressed. This study makes us feel confident that one does not have to be at the direct expense of another.

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