Three quick takeaways from a debate on money in politics at the Lansing Center this evening

Attended a highly educational (and respectful) debate about campaign finance at the Lansing Center tonight. No really, it was fun. Debaters were Bradley A. Smith (Center for Competitive Politics) and Rich Robinson (Michigan Campaign Finance Network). Video of the debate is already up if you want to take a look.  Three takeaways:

1. Both speakers were actually agreed on the point that minimum dollar amounts at which contribution disclosure becomes required are ridiculously low – apparently especially in Michigan where the first penny you donate to a political campaign is supposed to be properly reported and disclosed. (Robinson said this law was created in an attempt to break up Democratic bingo games.) One of the practical effects of this is that in low-budget campaigns, where someone running for township trustee might spend $800 in total to get elected, is that they look around, see how complicated it would be to take $5 and $10 donations from their neighbors, and say “forget about it, I’ll just pay for the whole campaign myself”. Thus in one very obvious way these laws discourage public participation in politics – is that what we want? Said Smith, it used to be that you’d announce your candidacy, then pass around the hat and get your first donations. Do that today and you’d be breaking about ten federal laws.

2. At one point came the question, “what would happen if we eliminated maximum contribution limits to political campaigns?”. Said Smith – sounds like a terrible idea, campaigns would be like, why, they’d be like pretty much every campaign in America before 1970. Is anybody out there rejoicing at how much less influence money has in politics today, vs. before 1970 when all these laws didn’t exist?

3. Smith’s opening illustration – nobody likes the idea of the federal government listening in on your phone calls, that’s not right. Suppose it was proposed that the government would keep a record of all your political activities, you would be required to report them, and then the government would make that list available to potential employers, ex-spouses, anybody that might have it in for you could get a look – would you be in favor of that law? But in fact we already have those laws, we call them campaign finance disclosure laws.

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