Article published Wednesday, January 20, 2016, at New York Post.

What Bernie Sanders misses about the rise in campaign cash

By John R. Lott, Jr.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders thinks that millionaires and billionaries buy elections.

He hammered away during Sunday’s Democratic debate, complaining about people “pouring unbelievable sums of money into the political process.” According to estimates made by the Center for Responsive Politics, $3.77 billion was spent on elections for federal office during the 2014 midterms.

Sanders blames this on the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United, prohibiting the government from restricting independent political spending by unions, corporations and advocacy groups. But the growth rate in campaign spending long predates that case, and has actually slowed down since that decision.

There was only a 4 percent increase in spending from the 2010 to the 2014 midterm elections. So much for Sanders’ “explosion.”

In fact, this rate of growth was unusually small — much smaller than the 31 percent average growth that usually took place between midterm congressional elections from 1998 to 2010.

So what really causes political spending to increase over time? The answer won’t make Sanders very happy.

The truth is that government expenditures and campaign expenditures have increased in tandem. Total campaign spending soared from $1.6 billion in 1998 to $3.77 billion in 2014. Federal government spending rose at virtually the same rate, going from $1.65 trillion to $3.9 trillion.

With more at stake, it makes sense for there to be an even bigger fight over who controls the federal government. If federal spending still amounted to 2 percent to 3 percent of GDP — as it did a century ago — people likely wouldn’t care as passionately about the outcome of most elections.

In the Journal of Law and Economics in 2000, I looked at the years 1976 to 1994 and studied spending on gubernatorial and state legislative campaigns. Almost 80 percent of the increase in campaign spending could be explained by the growth of state governments.

I accounted for such factors as the number of contested races, how competitive the elections were and whether control of the legislature was closely divided. States with the fastest-growing budgets saw the biggest increases in campaign expenditures.

Many of those who express the most outrage about campaign expenditures are themselves cheerleaders for increased government spending. If they want less money spent on campaigns, then make the stakes lower: Make government smaller.

If anything, it’s remarkable that campaign expenditures aren’t even higher. After all, an enormous amount of power and influence is up for grabs.

The money spent on the 2014 midterm elections is less than 0.1 percent of the nearly $4 trillion of federal spending. That’s one dollar in campaign spending for every thousand dollars of federal expenditures.

In a single year, a private company may spend more on advertising than is spent on an entire federal election cycle. In 2014, Procter & Gamble’s spending on advertising came to $2.64 billion — almost three-quarters of what has been spent on all federal elections during the entire 2013-14 two-year election cycle.

As government spending (and involvement in our daily lives) increases, it’s only natural that people will want to spend more money on determining who wields that power.

Ironically, with Sanders promising $18 trillion in new government spending over the next decade, he would cause the very massive increase in campaign spending that he says he wants to avoid.

Growing campaign spending is a symptom, not the cause, of what ails our republic. And Sanders will only make it worse.

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