Amendments to Limit Campaign Contributions Misguided

May 7, 2013

In the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, the Supreme Court decided that prohibiting independent electoral spending by corporations violated the First Amendment. Before this ruling, strict limits were placed on a corporation's political contributions. A subsequent case, SpeechNow v. Federal Election Commission, extended the Citizens United logic to individuals. Together, the cases have received substantial criticism and proposed constitutional amendments to limit the supposed corruptive influence of money. However, these proposals are misguided, says John Samples, director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.

  • In Citizens United, the Supreme Court upheld the principle that speaking out requires money and as such, expenditures cannot be limited without limiting free speech, a bedrock principle of the American republic.
  • Several amendments have been proposed during the 113th Congress that would give other values more prominence than the constitutionally sanctioned value of free speech that Americans take very seriously.
  • None of the proposed amendments meet the court's definition of permissible limitations on political spending, which center around the prevention of corruption.

The courts have ruled that preventing the appearance of corruption is a justifiable reason to limit campaign contributions but this standard is hard to enforce because it is difficult to specifically target money that leads to the appearance of corruption when much of the money does not.

  • The courts have said that contributions cannot be given with the expectation of a return favor, but again this is difficult to judge, especially by elected officials who have a personal interest in receiving contributions.
  • Proponents of the amendments claim that higher contributions grant donors more access to politicians, but the Supreme Court found that this process of granting access is part of politics and the polarized nature of the electorate and interest groups.
  • Evidence from recent elections shows that campaign spending is not strongly related to electoral wins, meaning that spending on speech is not the final determination of voting outcomes.

For these reasons, the proposed amendments to expand Congress' ability to regulate campaign contributions are not necessary. They may address the perceived threats about the political influence of money, but based on the reality of money in the election process, would do little to change the current system.

Source: John Samples, "Move to Defend: The Case against the Constitutional Amendments Seeking to Overturn Citizens United," Cato Institute, April 23, 2013.

 

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