Commentary

A Vote for Transparency

Twelve years ago Missouri voters approved contribution limits for state and local campaigns for public office. Now the Missouri legislature has passed a political reform bill (House bill 1900) that includes a repeal of those contribution limits. Gov. Matt Blunt must decide whether to sign the bill into law. Attorney General Jay Nixon, himself a candidate for governor, is urging Blunt to veto the bill.

Arguments for and against the legislation have focused on issues like transparency and the potential for corruption. It is surprising then that neither side has thought to take a look at the rich body of existing evidence from the scholarly research on American politics. In fact, there is no evidence to support the claim that campaign finance rules have any impact on political corruption. The most recent research shows that restrictions on campaign financing have either no effect or a perverse impact on the public’s faith in state government.

Often lost in the debate over campaign finance proposals is the simple fact that giving money to support candidates and causes is a fundamental way for people to participate in politics. That’s a good thing in a democracy. It is a liberty that is good in itself and an effective way to make the government more accountable. Ordinary citizens ought to be wary when politicians propose limiting their freedom to engage in politics.

The typical retort to this is that ordinary citizens are shut out of the political process when moneyed special interests dominate. Once again, this ignores recent social scientific research that demonstrates that more money in politics is associated with more campaigning and advertising, which in turn leads to a better informed and more interested electorate, and increased voter turnout.

Also, there is no evidence to suggest that public policy is skewed toward the wealthy or to big business when unlimited contributions are allowed. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but for every interest on one side of an issue, there’s always an interest on the opposite side. And what are interest groups but the vehicles by which ordinary citizens band together to petition government and make their voices heard?

Contribution limits also make it harder for potential candidates to raise the money necessary to run for office. Several recent studies suggest that the ease of raising campaign funds is an important determinant of the number of contested elections in a state. Contribution limits are one way that the people already in office try to reduce the competition for their jobs. And the less competition there is for political offices, the less elected representatives have to be concerned about representing their constituents.

In Missouri, contribution limits also had unintended and unfortunate results. Restricting donations to candidates does not restrict the desire for people to engage in electoral politics. After all, we live at a time when government is involved in almost everything. What elected officials do about taxes or regulations matters a lot. Limited in their donations to candidates, political donors turned to giving to local political party committees or other groups which then supported candidates or ran their own advertisements.

That’s hardly a terrible outcome. Parties play an important role in our elections. But by forcing donors to give in a roundabout way, the law prevents citizens from directly supporting their preferred candidates. It also makes it more difficult to say where money came from and where it went in Missouri elections.

The new legislation separates the work of candidates and parties. Candidates raise money to run for office while the parties provide in-kind help (polling, phone banks, consulting and so on) for their candidates. This division makes candidates accountable for their fundraising, so voters will know if a candidate has received large donations from a source with a particular interest. And candidates can make an issue out of troubling contributions to their opponents. Voters can then decide to cast their ballot for or against the candidate who received the donation in question. Such open debate is a cornerstone of democracy, and a hallmark of liberty.

Some opponents say enacting House bill 1900 will turn Missouri into another Illinois. Missouri’s neighboring state does not have limits on contributions and has suffered several corruption scandals involving vote fraud, bribery, and obstruction of justice. But campaign contributions are not bribes, not least because they will be public knowledge in Missouri; no elected official wants to be seen as a sellout, lest he be voted out. And decades of study confirm this: political contributions simply do not sway politicians’ opinions. Instead contributions are the means by which donors support like-minded persons, and there’s nothing illegal or immoral about that.

Jeffrey Milyo is an associate professor of economics and public affairs at the University of Missouri-Columbia. John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.