Really. Hear us out.
Limitations on campaign finance were put into place in the post-Watergate era in an attempt to clean up government and improve accountability. While it’s obvious that campaign finance laws have had many unintended consequences, one could easily argue that they’ve had the opposite intended effect, leading to the explosion of spending on campaigns and elections, and creating a system that is less accountable to the average citizen.
In fact, former FEC Chairman Bradley Smith summed it up when he said:
For most of our history, campaigns were essentially unregulated, yet democracy survived and flourished. However, since passage of the Federal Elections Campaign Act and similar state laws, the influence of special interests has grown, voter turnout has fallen, and incumbents have become tougher to dislodge. Low contribution limits have forced candidates to spend large amounts of time seeking funds.
One potential solution to combat the problems associated with campaign finance regulation is to return to a system without campaign contribution limits. While it may seem to many who want to rein in campaign spending that abolishing limits is a move in the wrong direction, there is a compelling case to be made about the improvements in accountability and governance associated with unlimited fundraising.
The average successful candidate for the U.S. House spends ~$1.6 million on their campaign while the average candidate for the U.S. Senate spends ~$10.5 million. That means that to win an election candidates are essentially required to raise that much money – and the goal posts move up every cycle. Under current law that means that candidates have to raise an inordinate sum in maximum chunks of $2,700/$5400 (the maximum amount allowable for an individual to give a candidate by law). Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center found that in 2016, among those that made contributions to political campaigns, 55% donated less than $100 and 32% donated between $100-$250. Do the math on that. How much time does that mean a candidate has to spend raising money to hit their fundraising mandate? And is that really how we want our elected officials spending the lion’s share of their time? Dialing for dollars instead of doing deep dives into policy and negotiating with colleagues? Going to fundraisers instead of handling constituent needs?
But what if a few wealthy donors could just fund the entire campaign? There’s a real cost-benefit there. Sure, those few donors would likely have superlative access and influence, and it would contribute to the sense that the average voter can’t influence policy the same way the wealthy can. However, wouldn’t we prefer for our legislators to spend the vast majority of their time learning and legislating instead of fundraising? This would let a candidate raise all the money he or she needs in a few face to face meetings instead of over thousands of hours on the phone and at fundraisers.
And wouldn’t a system like this actually decrease the number of outside influencers on a candidate? Right now, high-dollar donors and special interest groups with associated PACs already enjoy the benefit of access and influence. The problem is that right now, a member of Congress has to maintain hundreds of these special relationships instead of just a handful. Allowing unlimited contributions could actually reduce the number of individuals and groups to which a candidate is beholden.
This also assumes that there are always perverse intentions behind donor contributions, when in reality, donors are likely to give generously to candidates with which they already agree.
Increased spending on campaigns is also arguably a good thing because money candidates spend is used to educate voters about issues, increase voter knowledge of the candidate and their positions, and energizing citizens to register to vote and then get to the polls. More money means candidates are communicating more with their voters and more information benefits citizens.
Allowing unlimited campaign contributions could also go a long way in ending the supremacy of the incumbent. Incumbents can enter an election cycle with millions of dollars in the bank, giving them a hefty advantage over anyone seeking to challenge them for their seat. For a first time candidate or for any candidate that isn’t able to self-fund, this can become an insurmountable obstacle in unseating an official that has been in office for years. It contributes to the rot of our political system because legislators become increasingly entrenched each cycle through the coffers they build, relationships with special interests developed over time, and growing donor lists that get bigger each cycle. Allowing a challenger to be on equal financial footing could serve as an equalizer to ensure that good candidates actually have a shot to beat incumbents, even if they don’t have great personal wealth.
Finally, individuals can already spend unlimited dollars on a candidate they support. By creating or funding a super PAC dedicated to the election or defeat of a particular candidate, wealthy donors already have massive influence over the messaging that the public hears and weighs before they head to the polls. What’s more, super PAC donors are disclosed and made public, so candidates know exactly who is working hard to get them elected. How is this a better system than allowing those donors to give to a candidate directly?
Attempts at campaign finance regulation have had massive unintended consequences. This is the hallmark of most regulation seeking to impose restrictions on some practice. There are always loopholes to be exploited by those seeking the undermine the underlying intent of the regulation. By eliminating the laws that have molded our current dysfunctional system, perhaps we can move towards a model that benefits candidates and citizens alike.