Something to keep in mind as liberals freak out over today’s SCOTUS decision

Written by . Posted in 2014 Campaigns, Elections, Issue Watch

Published on April 02, 2014

Supreme CourtYou’ve probably seen the McCutcheon decision this morning, by which the court abolished the $123,000 overall political giving limits and the $48,000 limit on what anyone can give to federal candidates in any given cycle. I think this is a positive development, a reaffirmation of free speech, and something that liberals would appreciate more if they weren’t deluding themselves about campaign finance law and what it can and cannot accomplish. 

The modern history of campaign finance reform is a history of refusing to look at evidence or anticipate unintended consequences. It’s a history of do-gooders who, lacking the ability to think more than one step ahead, believe they can achieve eutopia if only they can tweak laws about campaign contributions. 

Last week, I wrote in the Washington Examiner that the campaign finance regime begun with McCain-Feingold in 2002 had merely pushed most the action off the books. The result was that genuine third-party groups (say, the ones funded by the Koch Brothers or Tom Steyer) are still today doing exactly what they used to do before that law passed. But now a bunch of candidates are running separate, parallel campaigns, i.e. SuperPACs solely dedicated to their own candidacies.

I was prompted to write this by the bizarre fact that two of the three candidates running in the Florida-19 special election right now (April 22 primary) have their own SuperPACs — House candidates!

In the old days, the NRA and the Sierra Club simply ran ads for candidates that agreed with their issues. Today, the third-party groups you’re most likely to hear from during election season are not really third parties at all. Each political party has its own shadow structure, and many 2014 Senate candidates in both parties have official-unofficial shadow campaigns.

Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic opponent in Kentucky each have “their own” (in the loose sense) shadow campaigns, known respectively as Kentuckians for Strong Leadership and We are Kentucky. So do Mark Begich, D-Alaska, (Put Alaska First); John Cornyn, R-Texas, (Texans for a Conservative Majority); and Thad Cochran, R-Miss., (Mississippi Conservatives PAC); among others. And as the story above hints, super PAC-mania is spreading even to House races.

When you’ve reached the contribution limit to your favorite candidate, you can just give to “his” super PAC.

That is all legal. Meanwhile, we’re sending people to prison for “swapping” schemes, in which maxed-out donors merely agree each to give to the other’s favorite candidate. The IRS is also working obsessively to squelch non-profit voter education and registration drives, especially cracking down on tiny conservative groups with average annual budgets of less than $20,000.

This silliness could have been completely ended had the court decided to go further and abolish all limits on campaign spending, so that all “dark money” could flow to campaigns instead. And Congress could have done what conservatives proposed in 2002 in place of the useless system we adopted — increase disclosure requirements so that we know more about where campaign money comes from.

The court did not go that far, but at least now there’s one less reason to give under the cloak of anonymity. Another interesting result — by lifting the much lower total limits on what individuals can give to all candidates, this will allow people to give more in support of individual candidates they like as opposed to maxing out to party committees. 

Anyway, I’m heartened to see Chuck Todd essentially making the same point today on Twitter. At least someone out there with a voice is thinking about this clearly.

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Conservatives are not the only ones who should recognize that this decision probably does more good than ill. Here’s how I had put it:

The system of limited contributions is already meaningless. Why not acknowledge reality by scrapping it? Let candidates bring their official-unofficial campaigns out into the open. Let donors give whatever they want. Meanwhile, demand instantaneous transparency for all contributions and expenditures, instead of having candidates file impenetrable 1,000-page quarterly reports.

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