Rich people can now donate more money to politicians, thanks to the First Amendment and the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court’s ruling in McCutcheon v Federal Election Commission won’t change politics much. But it ought to spur Congress to clean up our cluttered and counterproductive campaign finance restrictions.
The court, in McCutcheon, struck down federal limits on how much a donor can give, in aggregate, to party committees and candidates for federal office. So if some misguided millionaire wants to give a few thousand to candidates in all 34 Senate races and all 435 House races, now he can. This is a minor victory for the First Amendment, striking down a useless and piddling burden on political speech.
The court, however, didn’t touch the most counterproductive campaign finance law: the $5,200-per-election-cycle maximum to any one candidate.
The 2002 McCain-Feingold law allowed candidates to raise only $2,000 from any individual donor in a primary, and another $2,000 in the general election. McCain-Feingold indexed that limit to inflation, and for the 2014 election, the max is $2,600 per election — $5,200 per cycle.
The idea is to prevent millionaires from “buying” a candidate with a giant donation. But the unintended consequences are probably worse.
A competitive congressional election can cost $2 million. A congressman doesn’t have time to personally solicit hundreds of donors for $2,600 or $5,200 a pop, so he outsources some of that fundraising — finding a supporter willing to hit up his rich friends.
There happens to be a class of people in Washington that are close to a congressman, eager to earn the congressman’s favor and connected to many wealthy businessmen. We call them lobbyists.
The lobbyist-bundler is now a fixture in House, Senate, and presidential campaigns. Democratic super lobbyist Tony Podesta regularly leads the league in bundling for Democratic candidates and committees, bundling more than $50,000 a month in recent elections. Even President Obama, who claimed to eschew money given or raised by lobbyists, counted on the lobbying chiefs at Pfizer and Comcast, for instance, to bundle more than half a million each.
Some transparency has trickled into the world of lobbyist bundlers. A 2007 law required some recipients of lobbyist bundles to disclose them, but not in any manner that is easy to find, process, or understand.
And so which do you think is more corrupting: A rich donor, very visibly cutting a big check, or a corporate lobbyist, with far less transparency, collecting a dozen medium-sized checks?
Millionaire and billionaire donors sometimes try to buy policies that will enrich them, but often they are simply funding the candidates they like and agree with. Money bundled by corporate lobbyists, on the other hand, is always transactional.
Shifting power from rich individuals to K Street lobbyists not only makes the money dirtier, it also tilts the playing field. Incumbents will always be more dialed in with K Street, while the occasional challenger may find a rich patron eager to unseat his congressman.
Real campaign finance reform wouldn't try to limit who can give how much money to whom, but would focus on transparency. Why should candidates' campaign donor lists become available only every three months? Just as I can log onto my bank's website and see immediately when my wife has deposited a check, I should be able to log onto the FEC website and see the moment Eric Cantor For Congress deposits a check.
Candidates' donor data ought to be available instantly and in a standardized format that allows journalists and nonprofits to parse and present the data in a useful way. I should be able to set up an alert on my phone every time Harry Reid gets a four-or-five-figure donation from out of state.
This isn’t a matter of regulating donors, but regulating politicians. Americans engaging in politics outside the confines of political campaigns — by communicating to the public directly — should be allowed to do so anonymously.
Witness the recent plight of Brendan Eich. The Internet pioneer was drummed from his new job as CEO of Mozilla, which owns the Firefox web browser. His crime: donating $1,000 back in 2008 to the California ballot initiative that would limit marriage to between one man and one woman.
Groups that campaign for or against a ballot initiative in California must report their donors to California’s Secretary of State. Many people on the Left decided that supporting Prop 8 was an act of bigotry. Some of those people were on the board of Mozilla, and they drove Eich out of his job.
Fewer limits on donors, and freer political speech, combined with a radical disclosure standard by politicians — that would clean up politics.
Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Sunday and Wednesday on washingtonexaminer.com.