Let's say you support a candidate for public office and you want to make a financial contribution to his or her campaign. How much could you afford to contribute? $5, $10 or $25? Maybe even $50? Or maybe nothing at all? You're not alone. The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that, of the 310 million people in our country, just 0.1 percent of Americans are making political contributions of $200 or more.
And, yet, the Massachusetts legislature is aiming to increase the amount of money individuals can give to candidates running for state and local office from $500 to $1000 per calendar year.
And they are doing it under the disguise of transparency. Buried in a bill focused on improving disclosure of the sources of campaign expenditures is the provision to increase limits for campaign contributions.
Why are our legislators doing this? "Prices have gone up," says Massachusetts State Senator Barry Finegold, the co-chair of the Election Law Committee and a leading proponent of this increase in the contribution limits.
Well, Senator Finegold, prices have also gone up for food, housing and healthcare, among other basic needs. $500 is still way beyond the means of the vast majority of people for making a political donation. Only the very wealthy can afford to give that kind of money to a candidate. And, now Massachusetts legislators want to double the influence that wealthy donors can exert over our political process.
Are members of the donor class asking for this increase? Maybe not. As Peter Schweizer, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes and Line Their Own Pockets, argues: politicians "play the shakedown game as well as anyone." Those who are used to giving the maximum political donations of $500 to Massachusetts candidates can now expect those candidates to press for the new maximum amount, saying the prices have gone up.
This increase in the contribution limits is an incumbent-protection measure. It strengthens the ability of those in power to build campaign war chests that scare away most challengers from waging competitive campaigns. Only the very wealthy or those connected to the very wealthy can dare to compete against such war chests. The rest of us must remain on the sidelines. If anything, we should be lowering the contribution limits, not raising them.
Our current campaign finance system operates like a wealth primary where elite donors pre-select candidates who can compete and go on to win election, based on their access to wealth. Like the prior poll tax which required citizens to pay a fee in order to vote -- effectively disenfranchising the poor, this system makes wealth a determinant factor in our elections. It violates the constitutional promises of one person, one vote and of political equality for all. Increasing the amount of money the very rich can contribute to candidates will only exacerbate further this wealth primary barrier. And, our democracy will continue to suffer.
Yes, we need stronger disclosure laws governing money in politics, just like we need public funding of campaigns and a constitutional amendment to allow for overall campaign spending limits to end the big money dominance of our elections. But, what we don't need is an increase in the contribution limits so that the wealthy can exert even more control or the incumbents can extort even more from the donor class.
If Massachusetts legislators want to double the contribution limits in state politics, they should, in the light of day, create a stand-alone bill to do that and try to pass it. But, they should not bury it in a disclosure bill and call it reform.