Tag: McCain-Feingold

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.

New Evidence on the Costs of Mandating Disclosure

Over the next few years, most arguments about campaign finance regulation will be about extending mandated disclosure to some of the independent spending freed up by the Citizens United decision.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, James L. Huffman offers a unique perspective on mandated disclosure: he was a candidate for the U.S. Senate last year. He argues that mandated disclosure means incumbents know who funded the campaigns of their challengers.  Incumbents do not have to actually threaten anyone; disclosure plus circumstances means a cautious businessperson will stay clear of electoral participation. Huffman also claims that some people who might have contributed to his campaign heard from associates of his opponent who said contributing to Huffman might be a bad idea.

We have heard such testimony before about the malign effects of disclosure. George Soros said some potential contributors to his efforts to unseat former President George W. Bush stayed on the sidelines because of concerns about publicity (see James V. Grimaldi and Thomas B. Edsall, “Super Rich Step Into Political Vacuum; McCain-Feingold Paved Way for 527s” The Washington Post, October 17, 2004).  Now we have a Senate candidate citing “dozens” of examples of a similar chilling of political speech.

Some might think incumbent protection is no longer a problem since 69 House seats changed hands in 2010 (and a similar number in the two previous House elections). If you think that, please recall that the House has 435 seats, all of which could potentially change hands. Yes, the advantages of incumbency have become somewhat smaller in recent years. But those advantages remain significant, and disclosure does increase the risk of contributing to a challenger, especially when the odds are overwhelming that those now in office will win re-election.

What should be done? Huffman notes that many Americans consider mandated disclosure to be all benefits and no costs. We might begin by gaining a more realistic view of the disclosure calculus. That more realistic view should include the costs of disclosure including lower participation and the ways mandated disclosure make public debates more irrational. At a minimum, existing disclosure thresholds should be dramatically raised. Forcing disclosure of the names of those who contribute less than $1,000 serves no public purpose.

We also should not mandate disclosure of the names of those who support speech independently of candidates and the parties. The only justification for such a mandate would be educating the voters. In other words, voters are thought to look for cues about who to vote for by considering who spends money on speech favoring a candidate. Does that seem plausible? If not, forced disclosure of independent spenders would not be constitutional. If Congress nonetheless enacts disclosure for independent spending, the U.S. Supreme Court should rigorously consider both the end served by such laws and the relationship between the means of disclosure to that end. Does disclosure of independent spending really educate any voters? If so, what about the costs to free speech identified by Professor Huffman? Once we set aside conventional pieties, does forcing people to tell government officials about their political activities really offer much to nation? Or does such coercion do little more than indulge those who equate politics with the pleasures of preaching hatred of those they despise?

Last year I wrote a Cato policy analysis of the justifications for disclosure after Citizens United.

Corporations Aren’t People But They Are (Legal) Persons

Recently, activist and filmmaker Annie Leonard released a video titled “The Story of Citizens United v. FEC,” an eight-and-a-half-minute criticism of last year’s Supreme Court case of the same name.

Well, sort of.

Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Lee Doren made his own video critique in response to Ms. Leonard’s offering, and points out quite clearly that Ms. Leonard doesn’t really deal with any actual constitutional problems in her position—essentially ignoring the decision and its rationale—and instead spends most of her time corporation bashing.

Lee was kind enough to cite, inter alia, a blogpost I wrote last year about what “corporate personhood” does and does not mean. If Ms. Leonard was going to ignore the decision, it may have at least served her well to read that post before producing her video. As I pointed out, under the logic she puts forth, “individuals acting through corporations should be denied their freedom of speech because corporations are ‘state-created entities.’ The theory goes that if a state has the power to create corporations, then it has the power to define those entities’ rights.” Ms Leonard’s video was made by (or coordination with) Free Range Studios—a corporation—and thus she’s making the argument that Congress should be able to keep her from or punish her for making that video because Free Range Studios shouldn’t have rights.

Despite the misinformation in Ms. Leonard’s video, we believe she and Free Range Studios have every right to be wrong as publicly as they see fit, even if she doesn’t.

Please watch Lee’s full video below, and look for the Cato shout-out around the 12:20 mark. If you’re in the Chicagoland area, I’ll be speaking about corporate rights and corporate personhood at John Marshall Law School tomorrow at 10:15AM local time. Feel free to stop by and please introduce yourself. 


Supreme Court Accepts Another Chance to Reverse Ninth Circuit, Uphold First Amendment

Today, the Supreme Court agreed to review McComish v. Bennett (consolidated with Arizona Free Enterprise v. Bennett), which challenges Arizona’s public financing of elections as an unconstitutional abridgment of speech. Because the case concerns a crucial new battleground in the fight between free speech and “fair” (read: government-controlled) elections, Cato filed an amicus brief supporting the cert petitions filed by our friends at Goldwater Institute and the Institute for Justice.

McComish centers on Arizona’s “Clean Elections” Act, which provides matching funds to publicly funded candidates if their privately funded opponent spends above certain limits. In other words, by ensuring that his speech will not go “unmatched” by his opponent, the privately funded candidate is penalized for working too hard and speaking too much. The law violates established Supreme Court precedents that have consistently held that forcing a speaker to “disseminate hostile views” as a consequence of speaking abridges the freedom of speech. Although the Ninth Circuit upheld the Arizona law, the Second Circuit recently struck down a similar Connecticut law, thus creating a circuit split that undoubtedly encouraged the Court to take the case.

In 2008 the Court decided Davis v. FEC (in which Cato also filed a brief), which overturned the “millionaires amendment” to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance “reform.” That provision gave similar assurances to candidates faced with the possibility of being outspent by their opponent. There, however, the concern was with rich, self-funded candidates: The act provided increased fundraising limits – triple the amount normally allowed – for candidates whose opponents spent too much (by the government’s judgment) of their own money on their campaign. The Davis Court held that this provision “impose[d] an unprecedented penalty on any candidate who robustly exercises [his] First Amendment right.”

The Arizona law is even worse. It doesn’t even delve into the messiness of fundraising – tripling the contribution limit does not, after all, mean that those funds will be raised – but rather guarantees that a candidate’s “robus[t] exercise[] of [his] First Amendment right” will be met with contrary speech from his opponent. And the law sweeps still broader: it applies the same matching funds provision to groups that spend independently from any campaign but are nevertheless deemed to be supporting a given candidate. Such “uncoordinated speech” by third parties – speech that, many times, the candidate does not want even if it is thought to be on his behalf – also triggers matching funds for the candidate’s opponent.

The end result, as extensive evidence shows, is that numerous speakers – from the candidate to the independent groups – will be reluctant to spend money to speak (which is, of course, required for nearly all effective campaign speech) because their opponents are guaranteed the funds needed to reply. In elections, where the freedom of speech “has its fullest and most urgent application,” such laws simply cannot fly.

Finally, it is also worth remembering what is at stake when we allow politicians to pass laws that determine the very rules by which they hold their jobs. Justice Scalia put this most poignantly in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce: “the Court today endorses the principle that too much speech is an evil that the democratic majority can proscribe. I dissent because that principle is contrary to our case law and incompatible with the absolutely central truth of the First Amendment: that government cannot be trusted to assure, through censorship, the ‘fairness’ of political debate.” As we now well know, the Court overruled Austin this past January in Citizens United, vindicating Scalia’s pro-free speech position.

It will be exciting to see how McComish unfolds. Expect another Cato amicus brief early in the new year, oral arguments in the spring, and a decision by the end of June.

Campaign Finance: Don’t Confuse Me with the Evidence

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Is it worrisome that Americans spend on political advocacy – determining who should make and administer the laws – much less than they spend on potato chips, $7.1 billion a year?

My response:

For decades among modern liberals it has been an article of faith – devoid of evidence – that money corrupts politics and that there is too much money in politics – “unconscionable” amounts, we’ve been told, repeatedly. Thus the crusade to restrict and regulate in exquisite detail every aspect of campaign finance, beginning in earnest with the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 and culminating with the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (McCain-Feingold). Yet after every new restriction along that tortuous course, ever more money has flowed into our political campaigns. But for all that, they’re no more corrupt than they’ve ever been. In fact, the best evidence of the fool’s errand that campaign finance “reform” has been all along is found in comparisons between states with little and states with extensive campaign finance regulations: When it comes to corruption, there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the regulated and the unregulated states.

But all those regulations have accomplished two things that should give liberals pause. First, by virtue of their sheer complexity and cost, they pose a serious impediment to those who would challenge incumbents, who already have a major leg up on reelection. And second, because we cannot limit private campaign contributions and expenditures altogether, thanks to the First Amendment, the regulations have led to money being diverted away from candidates and parties and into other, often unknown, hands, over which the candidates and parties have no control – by design. As a result, we see candidates today having to disavow messages underwritten by people who would otherwise, but for the regulations, have given directly to the candidate or the party. But that outcome was absolutely predictable – and was predicted. Two good reasons to end this campaign finance regulation folly and let individuals and organizations contribute and spend as they wish. What are we afraid of, freedom?

The Primary Purpose of McCain-Feingold Revealed

Kenneth Vogel offers an unexpected insight into the nature of campaign finance regulation:

“[Wisconsin Senator Russell] Feingold faces an uphill battle against a novice opponent, who, perhaps ironically, has been the beneficiary of hundreds of thousands of dollars in ads attacking Feingold that would have been prohibited had McCain-Feingold remained intact.”

In other words, if Feingold’s campaign finance law had not proven to be contrary to the U.S. Constitution, he might well not be facing “an uphill battle” to serve a fourth term in Washington. The political speech that is causing Feingold problems would have been prohibited in that situation. But the First Amendment favors speech and not the re-election needs of senators.

Oddly, Vogel writes as if the freed political speech (“ads attacking Feingold”) is a bug rather than a feature of current law.