Debate: Should campaign donations be limited?

The issue of campaign financing limits was discussed

The issue of campaign financing limits was discussed during the Supreme Court's first week of its new term. (Oct. 7, 2013) (Credit: AP)

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Should there be limits on campaign financing? The Supreme Court this week considered striking down limits on campaign giving to candidates and party committees. In oral arguments about a case called McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the court's conservatives appear ready to void the limits, saying that such limits violate the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. Opponents say there's a danger that lifting the limits would place elected officials in thrall to big donors -- creating a government of, by and for the country's 500 richest Americans.

Does big money make it impossible for little people to be heard in politics? Does the First Amendment guarantee George Soros or the Koch brothers the right to spend millions of dollars to influence a vote? Columnists Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk debate.

MATHIS: God bless Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Almost alone among the court's nine members, she keeps America's "little people" at the forefront of her jurisprudence -- and did so again this week, defending campaign spending limits in the name of democracy.


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"By having these limits, you are promoting democratic participation," Ginsburg said during oral arguments in the campaign-finance case. "Then the little people will count some, and you won't have the superaffluent as the speakers that will control the elections." Contrast that with Justice Antonin Scalia: "I don't think $3.5 million is a heck of a lot of money." Guess how he's voting on this case.

Understand: The limits on campaign spending don't -- haven't -- kept America's richest political donors from making their voices heard in our election process. What those limits have done, though, is allow for the possibility that people who don't have a net worth of seven, eight or nine figures can also make a difference.

Even if we accept the idea that "money is speech," it's not silencing or prohibiting speech to ask the guys with the loudest megaphones to turn down the volume just a little bit. Noise ordinances are constitutional, so why not campaign finance laws? They serve the same function: to keep the cacophony down to a dull roar.

Clearly, the existing campaign limits don't end the role of big money in politics, but they do hinder it somewhat. Take away the limits, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. said this week, and "there is a very real risk that the government will be run of, by and for those 500 people and that the public will perceive that the government is being run of, by and for those 500 people." That perception, of course, would put our present government on the fast track to illegitimacy. The "little people" won't be silenced, exactly, by an adverse court ruling. But a flood of new cash will almost certainly drown out anything they have to say.

BOYCHUK: Here is the Obama administration's argument against removing aggregate campaign contribution limits distilled to its essence: If you have the means to contribute the maximum legal limit of $5,200 in a primary and general election, it's fine to give to nine candidates, but corrupt to give to 10.

That's because federal campaign finance law caps aggregate donations at $48,600 for candidates. Why $48,600? Because Congress said so, that's why.

Also, as the Supreme Court ruled in its famous Buckley v. Vallejo decision in 1976, the government has an interest in regulating campaign contributions to guard against "quid pro quo" corruption.

Is government any less corrupt today as a result of an arbitrary cap? Are the candidates any better for it? To ask the questions is to answer them.

Right now, campaign finance law is the remote province of well-compensated lawyers, regulators and consultants. Few outsiders can enter, much less understand, all of the laws, rules and requirements.

Fact is, the system favors the connected. Liberal justices may fret over far-fetched scenarios of hundreds of political action committees colluding to elect their favored candidates if individual contribution limits should fall. In reality, incumbency remains firmly entrenched. Ninety-one percent of incumbents were re-elected to Congress last year.

And after more than a century of campaign finance "reform" aimed at taking "big money" out of politics, politics remains awash in the stuff. Total campaign spending in 2012 topped $7 billion in 2012. When Scalia dismisses $3.5 million as not "a heck of a lot of money," this is clearly what he has in mind.

If we're so worried about corruption in the process, then blast open the process. People already believe American government is the best democracy money can buy. Remove the limits. Let the money flow freely and transparently. If Shaun McCutcheon wants to give $1,776 or $177,600 to his favorite few dozen candidates, or bogeymen like George Soros and the Koch brothers want to give millions to politics, so be it.

Just make sure everyone knows about it -- and let voters judge accordingly.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Joel Mathis is a contributing editor to Philadelphia Magazine. Reach them at bboychuk@city-journal.org, joelmmathis@gmail.com or www.facebook.com/benandjoel.

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