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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Revisiting Our Plans in the Wake of McCutcheon v. FEC 

April 10, 2014 — By Daniel Stid

Last week the Supreme Court, in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, struck down aggregate limits on contributions to candidates for federal office, political parties, and political action committees. Given how much ink has been spilled already, I won’t presume to say something new about the decision here. Let me instead admit to an ambivalence that the Court’s decision has surfaced for me with respect to the Hewlett Foundation’s developing plans for grantmaking in the democracy area.

As I worked through the laments and diatribes from reformers that flooded my inbox and Twitter feed after the decision, I kept coming back to an old Henny Youngman joke. When someone asked him, “How’s your wife?” he’d quip, “Compared to what?”

Compared to the lofty if increasingly beleaguered ideals of campaign finance regulation envisioned by the reform community, the McCutcheon decision was an outrage.  That said, I found myself agreeing with Nate Persily and David Brooks as they argued that, compared to the realities of the post-Citizens United status quo, McCutcheon should be seen as an improvement.  It will be, insofar as it brings more money back into the disclosure system and strengthens the hand of electorally-accountable political parties vis-à-vis more single-minded and irresponsible outside interests and ideologues.

A basic premise undergirding our grantmaking in support of democracy is that healthy political parties are an essential component of representative government. One of the things healthy parties do is seek to rally elected officials, party activists, and voters behind a political vision capable of winning and sustaining majority coalitions. Human nature being what it is, party leaders are better able to catalyze such collective action when they have ample funds at their disposal – especially relative to outsiders seeking to pull the party’s aggregate vision and coalition in one particular direction or another.

The McCutcheon decision and the subsequent commentaries brought home to me the extent to which our strategy in this area embodies a core tension. On the one hand, we would like to see party leaders with access to the resources they need to build majority coalitions. On the other hand, we would also like to see the disclosure of, if not limits on, the contributions from what political scientists call the “intense policy demanders,” i.e., the interests and individuals lined up behind each party, threatening them and / or egging them on with increasing amounts of so-called “dark money.”

Our disposition thus finds us with one foot in the strengthen parties camp and one foot in regulate campaign finance camp. Some of our friends and advisors who are active in party politics have looked at our grants to campaign finance reform groups and have asked, in effect, what are you guys thinking? Conversely, many of our reform-minded thought partners and grantees (at least the more candid ones) have openly worried that we are becoming apologists for corruption with our belief in routing more campaign finance through the parties in order to strengthen their influence.

F. Scott Fitzgerald observed that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Of course I’d like to think that is what we are doing here. But I also appreciate that we could be naively if not foolishly wrong.

What is your take? Can we hold onto both of these “opposed ideas?” Should we try to do so? We’d welcome your input on these issues.