Kurt Mitman | Spend away
Sorry to be Kurt | Why the Supreme Court should invalidate limits on individuals’ political contributions
February 21, 2013, 11:44 pm·
Sorry to be Kurt
The Supreme Court this week agreed to hear a challenge to limits on campaign contributions by individuals made directly to political candidates and committees.
This represents the first major challenge to a central tenet of campaign finance law since the Citizens United decision in 2010 invalidated limits imposed on contributions made by firms and unions to independent political organizations.
The Citizens United decision led to the rise of the so-called super PACs — political action committees that can accept unlimited donations from individuals and corporations and engage in unlimited spending.
The current challenge relates to caps on the aggregate amount of donations that individuals are allowed to make to candidates or political groups over two years.
There are restrictions on how much an individual can give to a single candidate or group. For example, the limit is $2,600 for federal candidates per election. But in addition, there are aggregate limits on how much can be given over a two-year period. The limit for all contributions to candidates is $48,600.
Say for example, you wanted to give the maximum $2,600 to 20 House candidates in an election cycle. That would amount to $52,000, which exceeds the legal limit of $48,600.
At the root of the argument is whether contribution limits restrict speech, as protected under the First Amendment, in the same way that expenditure limits do.
On one hand, I think that in a post-Citizens United world, the importance of the debate is largely moot. Since people can give unlimited amounts to super PACs, who (corporations are people!) can then spend unlimited amounts, it would seem that contribution limits can be easily circumvented.
The existence of the Citizens United decision, however, does not absolve us of asking the question of whether people should be allowed to make unlimited donations to political candidates — either individually or in the aggregate.
There are several potential concerns. One is that the influx of money will perturb the workings of our democracy. If increased donations can significantly impact the outcomes of elections, then the wealthy may be able to disproportionately influence elections, policy outcomes, etc.
First of all, there is little evidence that disparity in spending has a big impact on outcomes. Research into the effect has found a modest positive link between disparity in spending and vote outcome. However, one of the confounding problems is that popular and well-organized candidates are probably more likely to win, and more likely to receive donations because of popularity and organization. So it’s not clear to what extent the link is causal.
Consider that total spending in favor of Mitt Romney in last year’s election exceeded that in favor of Obama by more than $100 million — how did that work out for him?
Further, if the money spent by candidates through organization and advertising is able to convince voters to vote for them, is that a bad thing? It’s not clear that spending isn’t just making the electorate more informed as to the positions of the candidates in the race, allowing them to make a better judgment for whom to vote.
Another concern is the potential for political corruption and influence purchasing. I agree that this is something that could undermine the proper working of our democracy. But I don’t think the best way to combat that is through restrictions on how much people can give. Instead, we should focus on improving the transparency in political donations.
As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” The Federal Election Commission already requires that all donations greater than $200 be reported. Groups like OpenSecrets.org help disseminate that information to the public. But requiring, for example, candidates to list all donors, their employers and contribution amounts on their campaign websites would be a step in the right direction. In today’s digital age, armed with this type of information, it should be relatively easy to detect influence peddling.
People work hard for their money. If they want to spend it on political campaigns, they should be able to. Personally, I think it’s a waste, but people should be free to waste their money if they so choose.
Kurt Mitman is a 6th-year doctoral student from McLean, Va. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him @SorryToBeKurt. “Sorry To Be Kurt” appears every other Thursday.