10/23/2012 11:19 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why Bother With Campaign Finance Reform?

Most of us are a bit disgusted by how much is spent on national political campaigns, especially when we ponder the more worthy purposes that money could have been used for. And although the research into campaign finance shows that money may not increase a candidate's popularity as much as is commonly assumed, those political contributions have some effect on both the vote tally and the subsequent legislation, making it seem that elections or congressmen can be bought. So it is natural to imagine that the right kind of campaign finance reform might clean up politics a bit.


Flickr photo by Luca Nebuloni

Looking at the attempts to regulate political expenditures and the many laws passed over my lifetime, I have to ask, "So how is that working out for us?" Yes, it is sarcasm you detect. There is more spent on campaigns than ever before. What is worse is that there may not be a way to meaningfully and morally limit what is spent on politics. I'll get to the moral aspects of potential solutions in a moment, but first let's consider the laws that have been tried or proposed, and why they have failed and will continue to fail.

The history of campaign finance reform goes back more than a century in the United States. The most common laws have involved limits on the amount of contributions to candidates, political parties, or other groups like political action committees (PACs). You can give $2,500 directly to a congressional candidate at the moment, $30,800 to a political party, and $5,000 to a PAC. Of course, the idea that money alone can determine election outcomes assumes that simply spending more on advertising induces people to vote for a candidate, something almost everyone feels is possible for just about everyone other than themselves.

The greater danger, perhaps, is that the elected legislator will feel compelled to introduce legislation and/or vote according to the wishes of large donors. But only the most restrictive limits on campaign contributions would resolve this problem, and then only partially, since even taking $500 from each of two hundred individuals who have common goals could leave a congressman feeling that he or she has a large "debt" to the group as a whole. Furthermore, even an honest legislator, who does not consciously vote according to the wishes of his campaign funding sources, cannot help but be aware of which votes will cost him money and which will bring it in, and this is likely to bias his decisions in subtle ways.

The basic idea of limiting political contributions is to lower the total amount of money pouring into politics. The success of that goal can only be described with more sarcasm. Despite the failure of these many attempts, the polls show that most Americans support campaign spending limits. We continue to hope that somehow there is a way to stop the corrupting influence of money in politics.

There are some reforms that probably help. Laws requiring candidates to disclose where they get their money were passed as early as 1910. Full disclosure seems like a good idea. Ralph Nader suggests members of Congress wear corporate logos of their sponsors. That might discourage them from accepting some donations, or let us know who is buying their votes, or at least entertain us.

But disclosure requirements are easy to evade. If a donor does not want to be known he might give the money to a political action committee which then gives it to a candidate. If we pass a disclosure laws for PACs he'll give the money to a more anonymous group that gives it to the PAC. If the candidate has a book published, the donor could just buy a truckload of the copies for distribution, quickly putting a lot of royalties in the candidate's hands.

Apart from the many loopholes that will always exist for getting around campaign contribution limits, there is a more fundamental reason that we cannot stop big money from entering politics. It is the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Unless we want to void that part of our political heritage and imprison people for speaking their minds or for putting their ideas on paper or in videos, politics will always be influenced by large quantities of money. There is no moral way to stop this.

Suppose we enact every campaign finance reform ever proposed, and so make it really tough for anyone to give money to a candidate. What would happen? If you cannot give more than $50 to your favorite politician, for example, what could you do? You could buy a radio spot extolling her virtues or publish a pamphlet praising her record or buy signs with her campaign slogan for your yard. All of these are things that the candidate would have spent the money on in any case.

In 2010 the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that limits could not be imposed on what corporations spend on independent political broadcasts. Many people thought this was a huge change, but prior limits never applied to owners or officers of large corporations in any case. It might be silly to treat corporations as humans with rights, but we can't treat people as having no rights just because they are wealthy, so all that changed is the ways in which the money flows (which is perhaps sad for shareholders of these companies more than for citizens in general).

What about PACs? Eliminate them? It's true that organizations backed by billionaires Charles and David Koch have spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars to influence voters in this election cycle. But if we outlawed political action committees or reformed them in new ways, what would stop the Koch brothers from directly spending their money on advertising for whichever candidates or policies they desire? And if they spend a few tens of millions of dollars to get a candidate elected, isn't it possible that the new congress member would feel grateful, and show that gratitude in his or her votes? Worse than that, if the limits were severe enough, we might prevent middle-class voters from pooling their financial contributions in ways that can compete with the expenditures of billionaires.

The desire for campaign contribution limits ignores the simple fact that such laws simply reorganize the flow of money, without any meaningful effect on the nature of elections or the corruption that potentially follows them. Assuming a politician has some popularity to begin with, a few wealthy donors could spend the money necessary to put him in office without him ever getting a dime directly. Other than arresting people for asserting their First Amendment right to say and publish whatever political sentiments they feel, there is no way to stop this.

I have no solution to offer, by the way. There are undoubtedly some partial solutions, but the point of this post is to point out the futility of endlessly enacting reforms that clearly cannot work. If for any legislation proposed we can easily and immediately think of several legal ways to circumvent the intent of the law, why waste time on it? This essay is sure to generate some nasty comments, but I ask any who care to speak up to offer one way to limit the amount of money in politics which does not violate the right to free speech and for which we cannot quickly find a loophole (or two or three or four).