Commentary

Why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Should Support Eliminating Limits on Campaign Contributions

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the strongest advocates for reducing the influence of dark money of undisclosed origin on political campaigns, is under fire after her chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, allegedly funneled more than $1 million from two political action committees into two of his companies, possibly in violation of campaign finance laws.

At this point, it is unclear whether this was unintentional or a purposeful attempt to break the law. Either way, the allegations underscore the reality of U.S. campaign finance laws: They are often overreaching, difficult to understand and overly burdensome for candidates.

Moreover, by making fundraising more difficult, they harm “outsider” candidates more than established incumbents. Whether this was an innocent mistake by a first-time candidate or done on purpose, these allegations show just how difficult it is to work within such a highly restrictive system.

Campaigns need money, especially those that aim to change the status quo. This is the reality of running for public office.

Campaign finance laws benefit powerful incumbents while hurting candidates with fewer resources.

Notoriously complex and seldom understood, compliance with campaign finance regulations is both costly and difficult. It is no surprise that grassroots campaigns like the one Ocasio-Cortez ran can seldom afford to retain one of the few experts in the field or keep track of the thousands of pages of campaign finance regulations. Compliance alone is a tremendous barrier to entry for lesser-known candidates who nonetheless want to run for public office.

To make matters more complicated, the regulatory landscape is constantly changing. Instead of making it easy for candidates to comply with the rules, the Federal Election Commission is constantly adding regulations and reinterpreting existing ones - often on a weekly basis. A well-established campaign practice that is legal today might be banned tomorrow. This raises the question: How are candidates supposed to structure a campaign when the rules are constantly changing under their feet?

Contribution limits hurt newcomers

Grassroots candidates should likewise be concerned about draconian limits on campaign contributions that even Ocasio-Cortez has supported. As campaigns gain traction, they need resources to keep going, and both individuals and political action committees are extremely limited in how much they can contribute to candidates.

Whether they are a CEO or your grandmother, individuals can only give $2,700 to a candidate committee per election. PACs can only give $5,000 a year. For nonwealthy candidates, these limits make it very difficult to fund a campaign. Although individuals face a shockingly low cap when contributing directly to candidates, they can give a lot more through national party committees: up to $33,900 a year for the Democratic or Republican national committee and $101,700 per year, per account for separate committee accounts used for conventions, recounts and other purposes.

This can give the national parties a distinct advantage in choosing their own candidates, allow them to crowd out alternatives, and promote entrenched interests. Dark money, indeed.

As history shows, underdog candidates who want to change the political discourse, like Ocasio-Cortez, can’t do so without funding and are often competing with powerful incumbents.

Democrats are hurting themselves

Take Eugene McCarthy, a Democrat who was against the Vietnam War when it was unpopular to take that position, and who used large contributions to fund his primary challenge against President Lyndon Johnson in 1968. The money helped get his message out. His success in the New Hampshire primary helped make Johnson a single-term president and shift public opinion on the war. This would not have been possible if campaign finance contribution limits had crippled his campaign before he even started. McCarthy, who was as liberal as they come, was unsurprisingly a lifelong opponent of modern campaign finance laws.

Ocasio-Cortez, like McCarthy, wants to make big changes in Washington, but this takes money. It’s the reality of running for public office, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, incumbent or freshman, charlatan or sincere.

Some Democrats are under the illusion that eliminating money from campaigns will remove corrupt politicians or only hurt the people they disagree with, leaving the crusaders for justice unscathed. But they’re just hurting themselves and making it harder for candidates like Ocasio-Cortez to navigate the regulatory gauntlet that is campaign finance law.

Trevor Burrus is a research fellow in the Cato Institute’s Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies, as well as editor in chief of the Cato Supreme Court Review. Patrick Moran is a legal associate at the Cato Institute.