Commentary

Campaign Finance Laws Backfire on Public

By Bradley A. Smith
This article originally appeared in USA Today.

Is the United States governed any better today than it was in the 1930s? 1940s? 1950s? Was Bill Clinton vs. Bob Dole, or George Bush vs. Michael Dukakis, a better choice than Adlai Stevenson vs. Dwight Eisenhower or Harry Truman vs. Tom Dewey?

It comes as a surprise to many Americans to learn that, prior to 1974, there were effectively no limits at all on who could give what to political campaigns. Large gifts were the rule, not the exception. Have our politics improved since 1974?

We are told we need more campaign finance reform, that we need to close existing “loopholes.” What evidence is there, however, to suggest that laws regulating political contributions have improved anything?

In fact, our 20-year effort to limit contributions has decreased the influence of regular people and increased the importance of the media, lawyers, consultants and professional fund-raisers. Contribution limits have forced our representatives to spend an inordinate amount of time raising cash and made them more dependent on special interests who can provide them with cash.

People have a First Amendment right to participate in politics. Efforts to restrict that right are like squeezing a balloon. The air simply bulges out elsewhere. Thus we see labor unions making $35 million in “independent expenditures,” all aimed at Republicans, and the rise of “child gifts” by people who seek to get around the $1,000 individual contribution limit.

Such practices make litigation over spending and contributions a prominent campaign tactic and actually make it harder to determine who really is backing a candidate.

It is time to return to the system that served us well for nearly 200 years. Let’s do away with the arcane restrictions on contributions. By simply requiring full disclosure of all contributions, we can bring political giving into the open, and voters can judge the candidates accordingly.

When the founders signed the Declaration of Independence, they pledged to the cause “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” They did not pledge their fortunes “up to $1,000 per year.” Had the king placed such a limit on their political participation, they undoubtedly would have considered it another reason to revolt.

Bradley A. Smith is an associate professor at Capital University Law School, Columbus, Ohio, and an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute.