Paying for Politics

69 Pages Posted: 18 Aug 2004

See all articles by John M. de Figueiredo

John M. de Figueiredo

Duke University School of Law; Duke University - Fuqua School of Business; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative

Elizabeth Garrett

USC Gould School of Law

Date Written: August 2004


Even in the wake of the most sweeping campaign finance reform law to be enacted in three decades, further significant reform is inevitable. Special interest money continues to flow through loopholes in the Act, and the Presidential Election Campaign Fund is near collapse. The next reform should encourage broader participation in the political process by individual citizens, both to dilute the power of special interests and to serve independent democratic values that recent Supreme Court jurisprudence has identified as vital to meaningful reform. We propose adopting a refundable tax credit of $100/taxpayer for political contributions to federal candidates and national parties; the credit would be targeted to lower- and middle-income Americans. A refundable tax credit is equivalent to giving each eligible citizen up to $100 annually to use for political contributions. We also present data about the relative importance of political contributions by special interests (corporate, labor and other PACs) and individuals that undermine many of the assumptions on which past reform has been based and that have not been discussed in the legal literature. The data clearly show that small contributions by individuals are the dominant source of money in campaigns, and that the influence of special interest money is subtle, appearing to "purchase" benefits like access, a place on the agenda, and minor policy details. Working from an accurate picture of who really pays for politics, and drawing from the experience at the federal and state levels with similar tax refund programs, we present the tax credit as a reform that is simple, easy to administer, and likely to improve political participation by average Americans. Thus, our proposal, unlike the complicated voucher plan with anonymity put forward by Ackerman and Ayres, is likely to be adopted by Congress; moreover, it will appeal to a bipartisan consensus because it mixes public funding with a decentralized allocation mechanism using a tax subsidy.

Suggested Citation

de Figueiredo, John M. and Garrett, Elizabeth, Paying for Politics (August 2004). Available at SSRN: or

John M. De Figueiredo

Duke University School of Law ( email )

210 Science Drive
Box 90362
Durham, NC 27708
United States

Duke University - Fuqua School of Business ( email )

Box 90120
Durham, NC 27708-0120
United States

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative

215 Morris St., Suite 300
Durham, NC 27701
United States

Elizabeth Garrett (Contact Author)

USC Gould School of Law ( email )

699 Exposition Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90089
United States
213-740-0064 (Phone)
213-740-5502 (Fax)

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