The emergence of super PACs shows once again that “campaign finance reform” has failed abysmally. After nearly four decades, it has achieved none of its goals. It has not purged politics of big donations, nor cured public cynicism about the influence of the rich, nor made elected leaders more trusted. What it has done is compromise basic First Amendment rights, clutter politics with baffling laws and regulations, and actually deepen cynicism.
Except for contribution disclosures, campaign finance laws should be scrapped. If there were no limits on individual contributions to candidates (the basic limit is $2,500 per candidate per election, meaning $5,000 for a primary and general election together), there would be few — if any — super PACs. The wealthy would give to candidates directly instead of resorting to some contorted alternative. Super PACs are merely the latest of many contortions born of a muddled Supreme Court.
Robert J. Samuelson
Samuelson writes a weekly column on economics.
A collection of Ann Telnaes animations on the presidential race.
On the one hand, the court has blessed limits on direct contributions to candidates and political parties. The rationale: to prevent corruption and its appearance — undue influence by big contributors. On the other, the court has also said that the First Amendment guarantees Americans the right to spend unlimited amounts to elect anyone they wish. It’s free speech. In Buckley v. Valeo (1976), the court tried to reconcile the contradictions by saying people could make unlimited “independent expenditures” not “coordinated” with the candidates or their campaigns.
The unsurprising result is that both parties searched for new ways to maximize spending without violating the letter of the law. These have included PACs (political action committees), so-called 527 groups, “soft money” and now super PACs, which can accept unlimited contributions and make “independent expenditures” (mainly media advertising). The trouble is that these various responses, though legally clever, seem ethically suspect to many Americans. The press generally adopts the same attitude.
The perception that political operatives and wealthy donors are skirting contribution limits — as they are — creates the aura of corruption and even criminality. Super PACs also seem to make candidates’ campaigns less accountable. The fact that all this is an exercise of First Amendment rights is simply ignored. The paradox is that campaign financial “reform,” far from allaying public suspicion of the political system, deepens it.
What started as an understandable reaction to Watergate abuses now imposes a tangle of rules on free speech and political activity. Go to the Federal Election Commission’s Web site and download its summary of regulations on “coordinated communications and independent expenditures.” It’s 11 single-spaced pages of legalese. This is not what the Founders imagined when they said Congress “shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech” or the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Three myths buttress the status quo.
Myth One: The rich and corporate interests rule government through campaign contributions and lobbying.