I. MITIGATING THE PROBLEMS OF POLITICAL CORRUPTION
The corrupting influence of campaign contributions has been a central concern of finance reform.8 The notion that wealthy donors are able to purchase political access or influence is antithetical to our ideal of equal citizenship.9 As Cass Sunstein has observed, "[T]here is no good reason to allow disparities in wealth to be translated into disparities in political power. A well-functioning democracy distinguishes between market processes of purchase and sale on the one hand and political processes of voting and reason-giving on the other."10 Bruce Ackerman also advocates separating market and political processes: "A democratic market society must confront a basic tension between its ideal of equal citizenship and the reality of market inequality. It does so by drawing a line, marking a political sphere within which the power relationships of the market are kept under democratic control."11 The most popular reforms for decoupling these spheres operate by regulating money: They either limit the amount that donors can give, or they limit the amount that candidates can spend.
But there is another way to decouple private wealth from public power. Instead of limiting money, we might limit information. Since Watergate, the only informational reforms have been those that have increased the amount of mandated disclosure. Discussions of disclosure often assume that we must choose between a world in which everyone knows of a gift (the disclosure regime) and a world in which only a donor and her candidate know the source of a gift (the laissez-faire regime). But as shown in Table I, this analysis overlooks the possibility of moving toward a world in which only the donor knows about a gift.
In fact, there are several different continua of possible informational regulations. For example, we could require the blind trusts who received a candidate’s contributions to publicly disclose the identity of all donors but not the amounts that the individuals gave.12 For specificity, I will image a “mandated anonymity” regime where the donor has the option of remaining completely anonymous or having the blind trust verify publicly that she gave up to $200. The trust would never disclose whether a donor had given more than $200. It is my thesis that failure of scholars and courts to consider these alternative informational regimes is largely responsible for the strong consensus in favor of public disclosure.
The impetus for disclosure is that a public armed with knowledge about political contributions will be able to punish candidates who sell their office or who are otherwise inappropriately influenced. It has, however, proved exceedingly difficult to infer inappropriate influence from the mere fact of contributions. Politicians claim they would have acted the same way regardless of whether a questionable contribution had been made. Moreover, we have been unwilling to prohibit selling access (re: face time) in return for contributions. The Attorney General has flatly concluded that such quid pro quo agreements are legal.13 And today's jaded citizenry imposes hardly any electoral punishment on candidates known to have sold political access. In sum, public disclosure produces very little deterrent benefit: Types of corruption that can be proved (contributions for access) are legal, and types of corruption that are illegal (contributions for influence) can't be proved. At most, disclosure deters only the most egregious and express types of influence peddling.
In contrast, a regime of mandated anonymity interferes with an informational prerequisite for corruption. Put simply, it will be more difficult for candidates to sell access or influence if they are unsure whether a donor has paid the price. Of course, much turns on whether government can actually keep candidates uninformed about who donates to their campaigns. But to begin, this section considers what an idealized regime of mandated anonymity - without evasions or substitute speech - can and cannot accomplish.
An idealized donation booth would severely impede quid pro quo corruption -- the trading of contributions for political access or influence. This effect would encompass not only explicit trades (donations for nights in the Lincoln bedroom, presidential coffees, legislative activity), but also a large range of implicit deals, including sequential action whereby either the politician or donor "performs" in expectation of subsequent performance by the other side. The Supreme Court's concern with the corrupting effects of "political debts"14 would also be neutralized by the donation booth for the simple reason that politicians would be unable to determine to whom they were indebted. This rationale was explicitly used to justify a proposed system of anonymous donations to presidential legal defense funds. In 1993, the Office of Government Ethics ("OGE") reasoned, "Anonymous private paymasters do not have an economic hold on an employee because the employee does not know who the paymasters are. Moreover, the employee has no way to favor the outside anonymous donors."15
Mandated anonymity could also deter politicians from extorting donations. The popular discussion of quid pro quo corruption focuses solely on campaign contributions in return for legislative favors. In the terminology of public choice theory, donors would be engaged in a kind of "rent seeking." But there is a radically different kind of quid pro quo corruption. Politicians engage in "rent extraction" when they threaten potential donors with unfavorable treatment unless a sufficiently large contribution is made.16 Rent extraction almost surely explains some of the anomalous patterns of giving - particularly, the "everybody loves a winner" phenomenon. The high level of contributions made to incumbents with safe seats is consistent with rent extraction because incumbents have the greatest ability to extort donations.17 Understanding rent extraction also explains why several corporations have privately agreed not to make soft money contributions.18 Fear of rent extraction may even keep private interest groups from organizing because politicians will have a harder time shaking down an unorganized mass.19 Mandated donor anonymity would allow private interests to organize without fear of being targeted for extortion.
Just as the secret ballot substantially deterred vote buying, mandating secret donations might substantially deter both forms of quid pro quo corruption: rent seeking and rent extraction. There is a lively academic debate about how much current campaign donations are intended to garner access or influence or to avoid unfavorable treatment.20 Since mandated anonymity is better suited than mandated disclosure to deter quid pro quo corruption, an important part of its justification must turn on the extent to which this form of corruption is truly a problem.
However, the problems of "monetary influence corruption" or "inequality" also plague our current system of campaign finance.21 Although mandated anonymity would not eliminate these problems, a regime of mandated anonymity is also likely to mitigate these problems much more than a regime of mandated disclosure. Even when politicians don't condition their behavior on contributions, they may nonetheless expect that taking certain positions will cause donors to give more money. This is the problem of “monetary influence.” And even when wealthy donors don't expect their giving to change a candidate's behavior, they may reasonably believe that giving to a candidate with whom they agree will increase that candidate's chance of (re)election. This at times is referred to as the inequality problem. In the first instance, the possibility of a contribution has a corruptive influence on the candidate's behavior. In the second, even though the candidate's positions are uncorrupted (read "unchanged") by the contribution, the contributions of those with disproportionate wealth corrupt the process by increasing the likelihood that positions favored by the wealthy will be disproportionately favored in our political sphere.
Some might argue, however, that monetary influence is not a problem because donors' willingness to pay usefully informs candidates about the intensity of voter preferences. Yet there is strong consensus from a broad range of scholars that politicians should not choose their policies with an eye toward campaign contributions.22 Not all interest groups can readily organize to compete for candidates' monetary interests. A concentrated interest group advocating a law that decreases social welfare may be able to donate more money than can more diffuse interests opposing the measure. Under such conditions, donations may give candidates a false signal of citizens' intensity of preference. Insulating candidates from the influence of donations may lead toward legislation that more truly reflects the preference intensity of voters.23 Monetary influence corruption, like vote buying, is rejected because the legitimate preferences of citizens with unequal abilities to pay or unequal opportunities to pay are given undue influence.24
Scholars have also rejected the notion that contributions should influence politicians in part because contributions tend to reduce independent deliberation and reason-giving.25 David Strauss, in particular, has argued:
[O]n any plausible conception of representative government, elected representatives sometimes should exercise independent judgment .... Campaign contributions do not create the possibility that representatives will follow instead of lead; that is an unavoidable (and to some extent desirable) part of any democracy. But because contribution-votes can be so much better targeted than votes at the ballot box, a system in which contributions are explicitly exchanged for official action will accentuate this tendency of representative government.26
Under this view, the monetary influence of contributions impedes the deliberative processes of democracy. At times, representatives should take positions that are not merely aggregations of their constituents' preferences.
Mandated anonymity would reduce the corrupting influence of contributions on candidates' behavior by reducing both the candidates' feedback about how particular positions affect giving and the willingness of donors to make large donations to influence candidate behavior. Candidates would still learn the total amount of money that had been contributed to their campaigns, but they wouldn't learn how particular positions translate into particular contributions. Mandated anonymity would create a kind of Tiebout model27 for candidates' policies. In the original Tiebout model, different towns committed to particular taxes and amenities, and then potential citizens voted with their feet by moving to the towns with the tax and expenditure package they most preferred. Mandated anonymity would push the contribution market in the same direction. Politicians would announce policies and wait and see whether those policies garnered financial support. This is not true independent leadership, but it is likely to be more independent than the current regime - one in which private interests can bestow gifts on a politician in full expectation that she will see and appreciate on which side her bread is buttered.
Past giving would be a poor guide for predicting future donations under a mandated anonymity regime because donor anonymity would exacerbate the "donor's paradox." Just as it is irrational to vote when there is an infinitesimal chance that one's vote will affect the election, it is irrational to give if one's gift imperceptibly increases the chance of a candidate's victory. Under the current regime, politicians overcome the donor's paradox by developing a reputation for giving donors special consideration; large donors expect their contributions to yield concrete benefits concerning a candidate's policy, legislative activity, or at the very least, the candidate's willingness to meet with the donor. But mandated anonymity greatly diminishes the expected return on an individual donation and thus, in all likelihood, will substantially reduce the number of large donations. It would be difficult for candidates to provide favors or special access for individual contributors without knowing the contributors' identities.
Mandating donor anonymity would reduce the disproportionate influence of wealth in our political system not only by reducing the number of large donations, but also possibly by increasing the number of small donations. While mandating anonymity exacerbates the donor's paradox for large donors, the same anonymity might mildly mitigate the paradox for small donors. Under the current system, small donors have virtually no impact on the electoral process. "For example in the 1996 election cycle less than one-fourth of 1 percent of the American people gave contributions of $200 or more to a federal candidate," but this tiny group of donors generated an astonishing eighty percent of total donations.28 By reducing the importance of large donations, mandated anonymity would make small donors relatively more important and thus might induce less affluent donors to give more.
Mandated anonymity -- even if perfectly implemented -- is not a panacea. Candidates would still have a muted incentive to take certain positions in order to generate contributions, and the wealthy would continue to have a disproportionate voice in electioneering. But by (1) making it harder for politicians to reward their contributors, (2) substantially reducing the number of large donors, and (3) possibly increasing the number of small donors, a regime of mandated anonymity could mitigate the problems of monetary influence and inequality.
In contrast, mandated disclosure is much less likely to affect these problem. Monetary influence and inequality could only be deterred if voters punished candidates who pandered to contributors or received disproportionate contributions because of their position favoring wealthy contributors. Our experience with mandated disclosure is that the benefits to a candidate of having extra contributions for the campaign almost always outweigh any the possibility that some voters will be put off by the fact of the contribution itself. At the end of the day, a workable regime of mandated anonymity is likely to have a much larger effect than mandated disclosure on monetary influence and inequality for the simple reason that it is likely to reduce the number of 5 and 6 figure contributions.