The Republican Party just cannot get enough money. Neither can the Democratic Party, but the GOP and its supporters have carried the fight for more cash to the federal courts, which have become accommodating since John Roberts became chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
In fact, attempts to control political spending have been a failure. From enactment of the Watergate-inspired Federal Elections Campaign Act of 1974 through the Bipartisan Campaign Act of 2002 – better known as McCain-Feingold – to the present, politicians have gone through the motions of reform with one hand while taking the money with the other.
And the taking has become epic. Total spending during the 2012 campaign by all candidates exceeded $6 billion, more than the gross domestic products of some 50 nations. About 15 percent of that from “outside groups” like super political action committees that can raise unlimited funds, and have already spent four times as much in this 2014 congressional election cycle than they did four years ago.
Thanks to the April 1 Supreme Court ruling in a case brought by Alabama businessman Shawn McCutcheon against the Federal Elections Commission, rich individuals will be able to spill more money into campaigns. Their aggregate contributions to Senate and House races had been capped at $48,600. Now, the limit will be $2.4 million.
The latest gambit is a lawsuit filed in Washington, D.C., challenging limits on the money individuals can give directly to the political parties. Now, donations are capped at $32,400 for the national party, and $10,000 at the local level. This legal challenge is the inevitable consequence of the McCutcheon ruling, which was decided on First Amendment grounds. The GOP asserts super PACs aren’t subject to these restrictions, so they have a fundraising advantage.
While the notion that political parties don’t have enough money to convey their messages is absurd, it does make sense to apply limits equally. However, this equanimity must be coupled with a level playing field on disclosure. Parties are required to reveal their contributors; super PACs formed under the 501(c)(4) section of the tax code are not.
The Supreme Court has made it clear that limiting political spending without running afoul of the First Amendment is a fool’s errand. But the court has endorsed the value of disclosure. In the Citizens United decision, the court wrote: “The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”
The DISCLOSE Act, which has been languishing in the Senate, would require those who give $10,000 or more to reveal themselves. We think it should apply to everyone regardless of the amount and the intent. No more hair-splitting over political ads vs. issue ads, or party spending vs. outside spending.
That would be more effective and realistic than trying to limit contributions.