True Campaign Finance Reform

Lucas Morel

October 1, 1999

Now that the U.S. Senate has voted down a ban on “soft money” contributions to national political parties, perhaps we should consider a radical counter-proposal: any cap on campaign contributions is unconstitutional, unnecessary, and ultimately counterproductive.

First things first. The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” If free speech means anything, it means speech that is free from government interference—and not just outright censorship. Any government regulation that hinders the expression of political opinions, especially those critical of the powers that be, should be immediately suspect. This includes limits on contributions to candidates that make it difficult to finance a competitive campaign against incumbent officeholders.

The freedom to discuss political issues and how government has dealt with them is a hallmark of a liberal society. But if government can determine what one is allowed to spend on political speech, whether it be contributions to or expenditures by a candidate, it can determine what speech is allowed at all.

Limiting campaign contributions is also unnecessary, and not only because there are laws already on the books against bribery of officials. Aside from the First Amendment, the very structure of the Constitution poses many obstacles to the corruption of federal legislators. Lest we forget, it takes a majority of 435 House members from diverse regions of the country to pass legislation. One would have to contribute to quite a few campaigns to have an undue influence on lawmaking.

And that’s just one branch of the national legislature. No small number of Senators would have to be bought off, to say nothing of getting the president to sign onto any self-interested scheme. Our national rulers would have to become quite the rogue’s gallery for this to happen.

Limiting the amount of money one can contribute to a campaign has also proven counterproductive. All sides agree that the current limits on campaign contributions, deriving from the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (as amended in 1974), the 1976 Supreme Court case of Buckley v. Valeo and subsequent interpretations by the Federal Election Commission, give a tremendous advantage to incumbent politicians in raising money for re-election campaigns. With individual campaign contributions limited to $1,000 per election, challengers have a more difficult time than high-profile incumbents raising the money it takes to wage a successful campaign. Given that many voters see elections as more of a change agent than a preservative of the status quo, any campaign finance reform should certainly not make it more difficult for voters to choose a challenger over an incumbent.

In addition, the growth in population and the increased mobility of the electorate makes costly direct-mail pitches and television ads a necessary means of communicating with today’s voters. Representatives now cover a home district numbering almost 600,000 constituents, up from a mere 30,000 when the Constitution was first ratified. Even incumbents, despite their greater visibility and organization prowess, find they must spend more of their time raising money for a successful campaign-time better spent considering the legislation most needful for the public good.

The best guarantee against the corruption of officeholders is not a limit on what individual citizens or corporations can spend in support of the candidate of their choice, but keeping the votes of officials public. Leave it to citizens to decide if a legislator voted as a payback for a campaign contribution. The whole point of elections is to solicit the settled opinion of the citizenry as to the performance of their rulers. To “reform” campaign financing on the premise that voters do not watch what their legislators do in between elections is to subvert the very function of elections.

Campaign finance limitations absolve citizens of their responsibility to remain vigilant over their representatives. Given the low voter turnout in recent elections (36% of adult citizens in the 1998 midterm election), the last thing government should do is give citizens less incentive to keep their representatives honest.

“Cherish therefore the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention,” Thomas Jefferson noted. “If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves.” To keep the people from becoming sheep, we should worry less about lawmakers courted by the moneyed few and more about citizens growing detached from the political process.

True campaign finance reform should not only help candidates raise money for canvassing today’s electorate, but also invite citizens to assume their vital role in keeping watch over their rulers.

Lucas Morel teaches politics at Washington and Lee University and is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.