Money Myth #1: There’s Too Much Money in Politics

A big part of our mission at Transparency Texas is to help citizens understand how money in politics really works. To that end, we are starting a new series exposing some of the most popular myths surrounding money in politics.

A 2018 poll by the Pew Research Center reported that 77 percent of Americans believe there should be limits on the amount of money individuals and political action committees (PACs) are allowed to spend on campaigns. Sixty-five percent believe new laws could reduce the influence of money in politics.

Political talking heads on the news frequently complain about the role of excessive campaign cash. A quick internet search will return hundreds of articles claiming there is too much money in politics. Even this site features a running ticker spinning up to the latest totals for political donations and spending — and these numbers, without context, are staggering. For the 2018 election cycle, Texans donated more than $493 million to their favorite Texas candidates and PACs. Even more stunning, those candidates and PACs spent $630 million — more than half a billion dollars — on the same elections.

There’s no denying that’s a lot of money. And that’s only Texas, not federal, elections. But agreeing it’s a lot of money is very different than agreeing it’s too much money. Too much compared to what?

Context is everything.

Check out the numbers in context:

Texas political contributions compared to the Texas state budget:

Contributions to Texas candidates and PACs totaled $493.4 million. According to the State Comptroller’s office, the estimated Texas state budget is $216.8 billion for the next two years. In other words, Texans spent $493.4 million to influence which lawmakers will get to manage — and how they will manage — $216.8 billion of taxpayer money. That means political donations totaled a paltry 0.23 percent compared to the state budget. And that percentage will shrink even further when politicians inevitably spend more than the projected budget.

Texas political contributions compared to the Texas Gross State Product (GSP):

The Texas GSP for 2019 and 2020 is projected to be $3.57 trillion. That means the amount of money Texans spent to influence their elected leaders compared to the amount of value expected to be produced by the Texas economy is a minuscule 0.01 percent.

Political spending is political speech.

For most citizens, making a political donation is the easiest — and often the only way — to be involved politically beyond voting. It’s their primary means of political speech. Most citizens don’t have the time or inclination to be involved politically other than to vote and possibly to donate to a candidate or a PAC they believe will represent their interests in Austin. This free speech principle has been recognized by the United States Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United v. FEC.

“I get to talk. You shut up.”

Campaign spending may be the primary means of political speech for the average citizen, but some people have a greater opportunity for political speech. For example, elected officials, representatives of government agencies, university officials, and others with public platforms frequently use those platforms to argue for their political opinions — often in support of increased taxes and government spending.

The most obvious and egregious example of political speech not reflected in campaign contributions is media commentary. Every time a media personality comments on a candidate, it’s like free advertising for that candidate or against his or her opponent. It’s appalling hypocrisy for a media commentator who has a public platform to argue the political speech of the average citizen should be limited.

For citizens who don’t have the benefit of public visibility, donating to a campaign with like values may literally be their only way to “speak back” to the media or others with a public platform who are advocating against their interests or beliefs.

A common argument by those who wish to limit campaign spending is that mega-donors are having an outsized impact on — effectively buying — elections. But the statistics show it’s actually the small donors combined who have the biggest impact.

It’s also worth noting that every single one of the $406 million dollars given to a candidate or a political action committee was a voluntary and lawful contribution.

What’s the alternative?

The alternative is for some politician — or worse yet, an unelected government bureaucrat — to decide when you have given enough of your own money to advocate for an issue you care about.

The alternative is for someone to decide when you have given enough of your own money to elect someone you think will represent your interests in Austin.

The alternative is to limit a common method of political speech for the average citizen while continuing to allow unlimited political speech for politicians, TV personalities, and social media celebrities.

The bottom line.

Texas candidates and PACs received donations totaling over $493 million in the last election cycle — a lot of money by any objective standard. But context matters. Compared to the amount of money lawmakers will spend in this legislative session, it’s less than one percent. Compared to the amount of money produced by Texans in the same time frame, it’s less than one-hundredth of one percent! And most often, those who advocate for limits on campaign spending have a platform from which they can speak to influence elections.

For most citizens, voting and these lawful, voluntary political contributions are the most effective ways to hold their government officials accountable, to exercise their First Amendment rights to free speech, to minimize their tax burden, and to influence how tax dollars are spent. Maybe all the money Texans spend on campaign contributions is a good deal after all. What do you think?

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