A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

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Don’t Raise Campaign Contribution Limits — Eliminate Them

Don’t make NAACP disclose donors to Klan, either

The campaign finance regulatory regime that has grown up in the post-Watergate era is a misbegotten, misguided, anti-democratic enterprise that protects incumbents, "professionalizes" politics, and makes the entire political establishment less responsive to the people.

Worse, it is increasingly being used to stifle dissent and cripple government reform efforts.

The entire system should be abolished, including both campaign contribution limits and donor disclosure mandates. Legislation passed last week by the Michigan State Senate is a step in the right direction.

To be fair, there are legitimate concerns about the potential corrupting effect of money in politics. While contribution caps and donor disclosure laws may seem effective ways to mitigate the risks, the record shows they are not. Even as political speech restrictions have grown more pervasive, their main proponents routinely release reports with headlines like this: "Record spending, diminishing accountability in (insert year) Michigan state campaigns."

In other words, their preferred solution doesn't work. There is in fact only one way to reduce the influence of money in politics — scale back the size and scope of government. As big government intrudes ever more deeply into the economy and citizens' lives, the need to seek redress of grievances, and the value of seeking special favors, increases apace.

Given this reality, the anti-democratic campaign finance "reform" project is futile at best. Like water flowing downhill, money will find a way into politics. The history of political speech restrictions reveals repeated balloon-squeezing cycles — constrict the flow here and it bulges out someplace else.

Worse, the threat these misguided regulations pose to core democratic institutions is already frightening and grows more so by the day. Two recent examples, and there are many others, show the system being used to silence political opponents and cripple reform efforts:

  • Last summer The Wall Street Journal's Kim Strassel exposed a scandal in which the Obama campaign website posted the names of eight Romney donors it accused of being "wealthy individuals with less-than-reputable records." The offense making them "disreputable" was disagreeing with the president on certain issues, and worse, contributing to his opponent. The posting, and what followed, were clearly dirty tricks intended to have a chilling effect on all political opponents.
  • Just last week, The Journal reported a political witch hunt in Wisconsin launched by an assistant prosecutor in the office of Milwaukee County's Democratic district attorney. With overtones of the ongoing IRS scheme to squash grass roots tea party dissent, the operation has "hit dozens of conservative groups with subpoenas demanding documents related to the 2011 and 2012 campaigns to recall Gov. Walker and state legislative leaders." According to Watchdog.org, the judge in a related lawsuit accused the assistant DA of "behaving badly, probably for political reasons."

Note that both abuses are direct products of campaign finance disclosure mandates.

Many skeptical of contribution limits nevertheless believe donors to campaigns and to political issue ads should be disclosed. It sounds reasonable, but once again the chilling effect on political speech far exceeds any purported benefit.

Nothing demonstrates the principle better than the 1958 case of the NAACP vs. Alabama. In the midst of an epic struggle against oppression, Alabama's attorney general issued a subpoena demanding the names and addresses of the civil rights organization’s members.

The U.S. Supreme Court wisely ruled that — in the context of the times — what essentially amounted to turning those names over to the KKK wasn’t really a good idea.

While the life-and-limb stakes are rarely that high, the violence that disclosure mandates commit against the core First Amendment principle of free political speech is just as ruinous to our democracy.

The bill just passed by the Michigan Senate engages all of these issues. It would increase contribution caps and establish that funders of political issue ads need not disclose their identities in the ads. If anything, the bill should go further, eliminating contribution limits and repealing the legal framework that empowers government officials to force donor disclosure.

One component of the bill is understandably viewed by conservative base voters who opposed several highly controversial votes this year as the establishment kicking dirt in their faces. As described by MichiganVotes.org, it would allow "Republican and Democratic caucuses in the legislature to raise and spend money promoting their preferred candidates in primary elections."

The House might strip out that provision, but in reality the practical effect would be negligible, because the caucuses have plenty of other ways to muck around in primaries, like funneling money through so-called leadership PACs. In other words, the current ban is another example of balloon squeezing.

While this legislation may be self-serving on the part of the status quo political class, it nevertheless mitigates a dire threat to core democratic institutions. Scaling back restrictions on political speech is a good thing; even the process requires many observers to hold their noses.

Like most powerful innovations, Uber disrupts the status quo by competing with established business interests. In Washington, D.C., the service was an instant hit with city residents - and almost as quickly found itself at odds with D.C.'s powerful taxi lobby and its allies on the city council.


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