Tag: campaign finance

The First Amendment Protects Both Political Donations and Campaign Spending

The First Amendment broadly protects political speech and the use of resources (printing presses, the internet, money) to facilitate that speech. Yet when someone wants to engage in the most obvious kind of political speech — supporting election campaigns — the government is allowed to restrict this important constitutional right. In a new case coming to the Supreme Court, Shaun McCutcheon, a wealthy political donor, and the Republican National Committee contend that the limits on political donations are unconstitutionally low and not supported by a sufficient governmental interest.

Currently, an individual may contribute up to $2,500 per election to federal candidates, up to $30,800 per year to a national party committee, and up to $5,000 per year to any non-party political committee. The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, as amended most recently by McCain-Feingold in 2002, also imposes an overall limit on the aggregate amount one may contribute in a two-year period. For 2011-2012, an individual could contribute up to $46,200 to all federal candidates combined, and $70,800 to political action committees and political party committees—a total of $117,000.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that the Supreme Court has dealt with contribution limits. In the seminal 1976 case of Buckley v. Valeo, the Court held that while contribution limits implicate fundamental First Amendment rights, such limits are justified if they’re closely tied to an important governmental interest, such as preventing quid pro quo corruption or the appearance thereof.

But the Court also decided that restrictions on campaign spending put a heavier burden on political expression, one which the government couldn’t justify. One of the plaintiffs’ arguments here is that the biennial contribution limits are simultaneously a limit on expenditures—a position which Cato elaborated in a new amicus brief.

We argue that Buckley’s distinction between contributions and expenditures, with limits on the former but not the latter being constitutional, is problematic. Not only does it allow infringements on the freedom of speech, but it has led to an unbalanced and unworkable campaign finance system.

Various justices over the years, some even in Buckley itself, have questioned the Court’s logic on this point. Justice Thomas in particular has assailed the distinction, pointing out that both contributions and expenditures implicate First Amendment values because they both support political debate. Moreover, candidates must spend an inordinate amount of time fundraising instead of legislating because they face an unlimited demand for campaign funds but a tapered supply. At the same time, money has been pushed away from politically accountable parties and candidates and towards unelected advocacy groups, leading to a warping of and decrease in political competition.

The special three-judge district court that first heard this case was legally bound to the framework the Supreme Court laid out in Buckley and restated that contribution limits are constitutional as such, dismissing the lawsuit. Still, Judge Janice Rogers Brown wrote that “the constitutional line between political speech and political contributions grows increasingly difficult to discern.”

In a truly free society, people should be able to give whatever they want to whomever they choose, including candidates for public office. We urge the Supreme Court to strike down the biennial contribution limits and give those who contribute money to candidates and parties as much freedom as those who spend money independently to promote campaigns and causes.

The Supreme Court will hear argument in McCutcheon v. FEC this fall.

Campaign Finance Proposals That Deter Speech Are Bad

Perhaps the first thing you should know about campaign finance “reform” proposals – at least those coming from the left – is that their ultimate goal is to deter speech about political issues.  Whether it’s limiting campaign donations or spending, restricting the ability of corporations or other groups to publicize their views, or imposing disclosure rules, the goal isn’t to have better-informed voters or a more dynamic political system, but to have less speech.   Those who advocate these things want the government to have the power to control who speaks and how much.

That lesson was repeated to me during two public events I participated in yesterday.  First, at a Senate hearing (which you can watch here; my opening remarks, a longer version of which you can read here, begin at 59:50) several senators seemed incredulous at my suggestion that we need more speech rather than less.  After Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) tried to get me to admit that I was a Koch pawn, a particularly laughable charge in a year when the Kochs sued Cato over management issues, Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) were incredulous that I would want fewer restrictions and less disclosures than them.  If I favor certain disclosure rules for donations to campaigns – which I do, in conjunction with eliminating donation caps, as I wrote yesterday – why am I against the DISCLOSE Act, which would impose certain further reporting requirements on independent political spending (and which failed last week after getting zero Republican votes)?

I should’ve just referred the senators to John Samples’s analysis of an earlier version of the proposed legislation, but in any event, the answer boils down to the idea that the required disclosures (of expenditures – which shouldn’t be confused with donations) are so onerous as to burden and deter speech with negligible impact on voter information.  That is, as former FEC chairman Brad Smith explains in this video, disclosing that a TV commercial was paid for by Americans for Apple Pie, one of whose donors is the local chamber of commerce, one of whose donors is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of whose donors is the national widget manufacturers’ associations, one of whose donors is Acme Widgets … doesn’t tell a voter anything.  What it does do is require 20 seconds of the 30-second ad to be given over to disclosure rather than the actual political speech.  So what’s the purpose of the regulation if not to deter that speech?

Moreover, Super PACs already have to disclose their donors, and if their donors are corporations/associations rather than individuals, you can look up the people leading those entities in their corporate filings.  And if the problem is “millionaires and billionaires” – there was more than one reference to the Kochs during the hearing, and I helpfully suggested that I’m happy to defend Georges Soros and Clooney as well – then no law short of a complete ban on political speech by individuals will do.  Luckily, we have the First Amendment in place to stop self-interested incumbents from trying that.

My second public event was an unlikely appearance on the Rachel Maddow Show, where I joined Harvard law professor Larry Lessig, who also appeared at the earlier Senate hearing, to discuss campaign finance regulation.  I thought it went pretty well, and you can watch for yourself (segment titled “How to take American democracy back from the .000063 percent”).  What’s telling is that guest-host Ezra Klein was more even-handed than the senators at the earlier hearing.

Finally, here’s another nugget from yesterday: As I exited the Senate hearing room, a young “reform” activist said to me, “I think you’re a fascist.”  And here I thought that I did a decent job of getting across the point that we should have less government, not more.

Citizens United Doesn’t Mean What Campaign Finance ‘Reformers’ Think It Does

Building on the excellent fisking of Newsroom by my colleague Caleb Brown and Reason’s Scott Shackford, let me  reiterate that Citizens United has nothing to do with any problems regarding how we regulate political campaigns, perceived or real.  

Perceived: Campaign finance “reformers” think we’d be a lot better off if corporations, particularly foreign corporations, weren’t able to fund candidates and parties.  Of course, Citizens United didn’t disturb the ban on that sort of thing, which has been in place since 1907. 

Real:  Independent political speech – be it individual, corporate, union, advocacy group, neighborhood association, or informal group of friends – is largely unregulated (though you do have to register SuperPACs and disclose donors, be they individuals or corporations) but candidates and campaigns bear onerous burdens regarding contribution limits, disclosure requirements (which scare off small donors rather than large bundlers), and arcane coordination rules.  A Supreme Court ruling is indeed at fault for the bizarre and largely unworkable way in which our laws have developed in this areas, but it’s not Citizens United.  Instead, it’s the 1976 baby-splitting opinion in Buckley v. Valeo, which saw the Court rewrite the Watergate-era Federal Election Campaign Act, creating a piece of legislation much different than the global reform Congress passed (sound familiar?).

I’ve written a law review article about all this called “Stephen Colbert Is Right to Lampoon Our Campaign Finance System (And So Can You!),” which will run in the University of St. Thomas (MN) Journal of Law & Public Policy this fall. 

And Tuesday afternoon I’ll be testifying to that effect to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution (here’s the link to the hearing site, where you’ll be able to watch).  Here’s an excerpt from my written statement (which isn’t online yet):

The underlying problem, however, is not the under-regulation of independent speech but the attempt to manage political speech in the first place.  Political money is a moving target that, like water, will flow somewhere.  If it’s not to candidates, it’s to parties, and if not there, then to independent groups or unincorporated individuals acting together.  Because what the government does matters and people want to speak about the issues that concern them.  To the extent that “money in politics” is a problem, the solution isn’t to try to reduce the money—that’s a utopian goal—but to reduce the scope of political activity the money tries to influence.  Shrink the size of government and its intrusions in people’s lives and you’ll shrink the amount people will spend trying to get their piece of the pie or, more likely, trying to avert ruinous public policies.

… .

The solution is rather obvious:  Liberalize rather than further restrict the campaign finance regime.  Get rid of limits on contributions to candidates—by individuals, not corporations—and then have disclosures for those who donate some amount big enough for the interest in preventing the appearance of quid pro quo corruption to outweigh the potential for harassment.  Then the big boys who want to be real players in the political market will have to put their reputations on the line, but not the average person donating a few hundred bucks—or even the lawyer donating $2,500—and being exposed to boycotts and vigilantes.  Let the voters weigh what a donation from this or that plutocrat means to them, rather than—and I say this with all due respect—allowing incumbent politicians to write the rules to benefit themselves.

Curiously, there will be six witnesses taking the “get corporate (and maybe even all private) money out of politics” view as against one, me, for deregulation and freedom of speech.  That seems a bit unfair; I’d think that the campaign-finance-reform zealots need at least a dozen people to stand up against my very simple “remove contribution caps but require disclosure for big players” argument.  Should be fun.

In short, while there are (at least) 99 problems with how we manage elections, Citizens United ain’t one.

More on Disclosure and Intimidation

Today Politico Arena asks:

Are conservatives hypocritical to argue for eliminating campaign finance restrictions and disclosure requirements, which they once supported, or does their argument regarding donor harassment carry some weight?

Roger Pilon made some good points about conservative donors facing harassment, which might explain shifts in conservative sentiment on the issue. In my own response, I tried to remind readers that people on all sides of controversial issues have reason for concern about disclosure and intimidation:

There are good arguments for disclosure, especially with regard to contributions to candidates: Let the voters see who might be influencing a candidate. Of course, there are lots of people who have influence without being major donors - mayors and governors, leaders of voting blocs and interest groups, editors and publishers. Maybe they should all be identified, too.

The case for disclosure is even weaker when it comes to supporters and opponents of initiatives. In that case there is no officeholder to influence. Once the law is passed, it’s the law. And we do know that there have been instances of bullying and intimidation based on donor disclosure. In the past both the NAACP and the Socialist Workers Party have petitioned to protect their donors from publicity and resulting abuse. Many businessmen shied away from supporting term-limits efforts to avoid offending incumbent officeholders. A couple of decades ago, people didn’t want to be known as contributors to gay-rights causes; these days, it may be worse to be known as an opponent of gay rights. In either case, disclosure has a chilling effect on political involvement.

The problems with disclosure may be greater today because of the increased polarization of politics and the role of the internet in both encouraging polarization and making it easy to identify and expose donors. Disclosure is a complex issue, but we should not ignore the chilling effect it can have on political engagement.

Campaign Finance, Disclosure, and Intimidation

Today Politico Arena asks:

Are conservatives hypocritical to argue for eliminating campaign finance restrictions and disclosure requirements, which they once supported, or does their argument regarding donor harassment carry some weight?

My reply:

Let’s just say that conservatives and libertarians have responded to events. When Obama singles out Romney donors for shame for “betting against America” and implicitly threatens them with investigation and more, when corporations that support the work of the American Legislative Exchange Council are harassed until they withdraw their support, and when petition signers in Los Angeles and Washington State are “outed” and then harassed and threatened by opponents, we’ve reached a new low in our political discourse. It’s not enough to disagree about a political issue: you’ve got to silence and even destroy your opponent.

And for what? So we’ll know that the Koch brothers support Republican candidates and free-market causes, or that George Soros supports Democratic candidates and collectivist causes? As if we didn’t know that already. The rationale for disclosure is as phony as the corruption-prevention rationale for our myriad federal and state campaign finance restrictions. Long before those restrictions were enacted, quid-pro-quo corruption was effectively prohibited by our ordinary laws, as it still is today in about half of our states. In the rest, and at the federal level, restrictions work simply to benefit incumbents and, where disclosure is required, to enable those who are so inclined to harass and intimidate their opponents.

The rationale for the confidentiality of campaign contributions is no less persuasive than the rationale for the secret ballot. Would proponents of disclosure want to eliminate the secret ballot, so we know who’s voting for whom? (There’s an opportunity for intimidation!) Then why treat contributions any differently? Sure, rich people can contribute more than poor people. But for every Wall Street there’s a Hollywood, for every corporation there’s a union (with unique advantages), so no one has a corner of contributors—unless, of course, campaign finance laws rig the game in one direction. And so we’re back to incumbent protection, the dirty little secret of the “reform” game.

Adler on How the IRS Is Rewriting ObamaCare to Tax Employers

Jonathan H. Adler is the Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at Case Western Reserve University.  In this new Cato Institute video, Adler explains how a recently finalized IRS rule implementing ObamaCare taxes employers without any statutory authority.

For more, see this previous Cato video, “States Should Flatly Reject ObamaCare Exchanges”:

See also our November 2011 op-ed on this IRS rule that appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

An Intended Consequence

The New Republic has an interesting article explaining “How Campaign Finance Laws Made the British Press so Powerful.” Basically, only British newspapers are free of regulations that suppress political speech. The author suggests adding more controls (including content restrictions) on the British newspapers to enforce “impartial” coverage. In other words, the media should be just as repressed as everyone else, and political leaders should be free of criticism.

Like many others, I have long thought that U.S. newspapers editorialize in favor of campaign finance restrictions to control competing speech and thereby become more powerful. After Citizens United, other organizations now enjoy the same First Amendment protections as media corporations like The New York Times and The Washington Post. No doubt that does mean such corporations are less powerful than they would be if campaign finance laws suppressed political speech that competes with their editorials and news reports. However, such competition is good for voters.