Briefing Paper No. 30

Money, Politics, and the First Amendment

By Major Garrett
June 19, 1997

Executive Summary

Members of Congress complain that elections cost too much and fundraising takes too much time. Some have supported a constitutional amendment that would deny First Amendment protection to expenditures on political speech, the very basis of a democratic political system. But elections are not getting more expensive; adjusted for inflation, campaign spending has been relatively stable since 1980.

Money does not buy elections; in 6 of the 15 competitive Senate elections in 1996, the candidate who spent less money won. Candidates with strong messages can defeat better funded candidates. In 1992 Sen. Russell Feingold, coauthor of a leading campaign finance regulation bill, defeated two better known and better funded primary opponents, then defeated an incumbent who had three times as much money.

Lifting the limits on individual campaign contributions and disclosing them immediately would increase voters’ information and enable more people to participate in the political process, without limiting First Amendment rights.

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Major Garrett, former deputy national editor of the Washington Times, is coauthor with Rep. Tim Penny of Common Cents: A Retiring Six-Term Congressman Reveals How Congress Really Works—and What We Must Do to Fix It.