No, getting rid of contribution limits is not the answer

By: Adam Smith and David Donnelly

The New York Times reports today that some House and Senate Republicans, facing an onslaught of attacks from outside groups, are finally ready to take action about our broken campaign finance system.

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), currently chair of the Committee on House Administration, which has jurisdiction over campaign finance issues, has “drafted legislation that he said would force more responsibility for the tone and messages of the campaign onto the candidates and political parties.”

That’s nice spin, but here’s the reality: Lungren’s idea of "responsibility" is allowing individuals to give unlimited sums of money directly to candidates, giving wealthy special interests even more influence in our political system.

Iowa’s Steve King (R-Iowa), who has in the past sponsored legislation to get rid of contribution limits, just wants more transparency because, “[w]hen you cap contributions, you’re also limiting freedom of speech.”

Really? For someone who can’t afford to contribute $500, let alone $500,000 or $5 million, free speech doesn’t feel all that free. Eliminating contribution limits would place elections more squarely in the hands of a small slice of the American electorate, not everyday Americans.

Voters know this. In a January survey conducted for Public Campaign Action Fund and Democracy Corps by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, voters were asked to choose between the following two statements:

  • Statement 1: There is too much money being spent on political campaigns and elections and reasonable limits should be put on contributions and spending.
  • Statement 2: Because electing our political leaders is one of the most important things we do as a nation, there should not be any limits on contributions or spending.

By 81 percent to 16 percent, voters chose the first statement.

This is a fight we’d be happy to have.

Lungren’s and King’s beliefs have been roundly rejected by the American people in poll after poll. A majority of Americans from across the political spectrum support common sense restrictions on contributions, don’t buy the “freedom of speech” argument, and support efforts like small-donor matching systems to raise the voices of everyday people in our political process.

Transparency is important—and something we’ve long supported—but simply knowing who’s trying to buy our elections won’t stop the purchase. And getting rid of contribution limits to campaigns will make members of Congress more indebted to big money donors and force challengers to spend even more time raising money to stay competitive.

The solution isn’t members of Congress taking ever-larger checks, it’s one modeled after the Fair Elections Now Act (HR 1404 and S 750), which allows candidates to run competitive campaigns for office by relying on small donations from back home that are matched by limited public funds.

Rep. Bob Dold (R-Ill.) told the Times, “I think what we’re going to find as history takes a look is that the Citizens United case diluted the voice of the average voter with the amount of advertising from outside groups. There are going to be those that say that was a good thing, but I do think the people of the 10th District deserved better.”

King and Lungren should listen to what he has to say.