Money Myth #2: There Should Be Limits on Campaign Contributions

Cries for “Campaign Finance Reform” come from both sides of the political aisle. It’s popular for candidates and interest groups to claim that we need to “get money out of politics” — and that limiting the amount of money citizens can donate to politicians and political causes is the way to do it.

But is limiting donations really the best answer? The suggestion that government-imposed limits on how much a citizen can voluntarily give to a campaign is the best way to achieve fairness is a myth. (See also Myth #1: There’s Too Much Money in Politics.)

In the Texas House, both Democrats and a Republican have already filed bills this session to limit campaign donations. Just last week, Democrat House Rep. Terry Meza filed House Bill 1847, which would limit individual political contributions to a candidate, politician, or  political action committee (PAC) to $5000 per calendar year. Republican House Rep. Sarah Davis has filed bills (HB 786 and HB 777) which would restrict when donations can be made and add additional disclosure requirements to campaign mailers. These bills add civil and even criminal penalties in some cases.

At the federal level, U.S. House Resolution 1 (HR 1) greatly increases reporting burdens, federal oversight, and disclosure requirements related to political speech and political donations. Under this ambitious bill, any speech that even mentions a candidate — and the money that facilitated the speech — could potentially be regulated. And that includes individual speech on the internet.

These proposed restrictions would further limit and regulate citizens’ ability to give to the political causes and candidates they want to support. There are already limits on the amount you can give to a candidate or their related PAC in each national election cycle. In Texas, there are currently no limits on donations to PACs or legislative and statewide candidates, but there are limits on donations to candidates running for judicial seats.

Protection for Incumbents

All campaign finance reforms are written by incumbent legislators. It should come as no surprise, then, that these proposals always benefit incumbents.

Incumbents have a natural financial advantage over potential challengers because they already enjoy name recognition. They also have the ability to remind voters of the benefits or “favors” they have enacted while in office. They are able to tap in to networks of special interests which often give money to incumbents in order to “grease the wheels” for lobbying. Challengers, on the other hand, rarely receive money from special interests because they are expected to lose.

Campaign contribution limits effectively allow incumbent politicians to decide how much money their challengers are allowed to receive from supporters.

Perhaps the best argument against campaign finance regulation is the Constitution itself. The First Amendment declares, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Proponents of campaign contribution limits argue they only wish to limit money, and would never impose upon a person’s right to free speech. It’s a tough sell, however, to suggest the ability to speak freely would be unimpeded by financial restrictions.

For example, imagine a candidate trying to get a message to all of his or her constituents without spending any money. Suddenly, even sending political mailers or acquiring transportation to engage the public becomes difficult. Or better yet, imagine a television news program trying to operate without any money for reporting, producing, or distributing its information. Monetary limitations would absolutely dampen their ability to be heard.

This principle that political spending is a form of political speech has been recognized by the United States Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United v. FEC. But there are ongoing attempts to change the law. Just yesterday, Texas House Rep. Rafael Anchia filed a resolution asking the U.S. Congress to ratify an amendment to the Constitution overturning Citizens United. Like Anchia’s resolution, many of these laws which are designed to limit political spending appear to be an end-run around Supreme Court precedent and would likely be found unconstitutional if challenged in court.

How Widespread is the Problem of Vote Buying?

Proponents of limits on campaign contributions claim that regulations are needed to prevent corruption and to prevent big donors from buying politicians.

There is strong evidence, however, that money flows to politicians who already have the same values as their donors, rather than money influencing how they vote. Politicians aren’t being strong-armed into changing their votes by donors with deep pockets — they are generally attracting like-minded donors to support their campaigns.

Moreover, even the biggest donors only contribute a small percentage of overall donations. In fact, all the top contributors combined still only represent a small fraction of the total money given in any election cycle.

While money is crucial to a successful campaign, large individual donations are not a good predictor of a candidate’s success at the polls. Rather, the total number of contributions — particularly the number of contributions from inside the candidate’s district — is a much stronger indicator of success than whether a candidate bags a “mega-donor”.

Of course, this is not to suggest a naive stance on whether or not corruption in campaign finance exists. Surely there are instances where a politician’s vote is “bought” with campaign donations. But this is already illegal. There are laws in place to prevent and penalize the bribing of elected officials. To further regulate, even criminalize, certain kinds of political speech — speech that is supposed to be protected by the First Amendment — will only do more harm than good.

What’s the Better Solution?

The Constitution provides that “We, the people,” have the ultimate responsibility for the proper functioning of government. We are intended to be self-governing, not overly regulated by Austin or Washington politicians.

But to govern ourselves effectively we must be vigilant, and we must hold our representatives accountable at the ballot box. It doesn’t make sense to allow the same politicians we are trying to hold accountable to regulate the extent to which we can speak politically.

Limiting campaign contributions is not the tidy solution that incumbents claim it is. But monitoring how those contributions are being used is incredibly important in order to maintain accountability in Austin, and to make informed choices when it comes to our own use of free speech.

This is why we built Transparency Texas. You can see for yourself where your representatives are getting their campaign money and exactly how they are spending it. You can search here by donor, candidate, or PAC to see exactly what’s happening with the money in Texas politics.

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