A few thoughts on Campaign Finance Reform

Campaign finance reform has weakened the political parties while enhancing the power of special interests. To some extent this has been good, but there are negatives to that as well. One of the consequences to these “reforms” has been the creation of so-called “super PACs.” So instead of money going to the political parties, that money goes to the “Super PACs” instead.

Enter Elizabeth Warren, who promised not to use a “Super PAC.” Now that there is a “Super PAC” supporting her, activist Shaun King issued the following statement:

If you are going to violate your core campaign promise to not be bankrolled by billionaires and Super PACs, at least publicly disclose WHO is pouring tens of millions into the Super PAC created to support you. It’s unethical to hide it.

I am no fan of Elizabeth Warren but this is an unfair attack. Not only does Warren not know who the contributors are, neither she nor her campaign are legally allowed to know who the contributors are. Federal law forbids coordination between campaigns and political action committees, as well as coordination between campaigns and “527 groups” that engage in issue advocacy. Warren is being asked to do something that is not legally permissible. It would be more honest to ask the “Super PAC” directly, but that would not generate as much attention as focusing on Warren.

Warren, of course, is not the only Democrat taking heat for campaign spending. Michael Bloomberg is being accused of trying to “buy” the election by dumping truckloads of his own money into his campaign. The Supreme Court ruled decades ago that, while the federal government has a legitimate interest in limiting campaign contributions to reduce the potential for corruption, restricting what a candidate can spend from his own bank account is an unconstitutional limitation on speech. Of course, when it comes to political campaigns, money is speech. It costs money to buy ads on social networks, to host and build a website, and to run advertisements on television and popular streaming services like YouTube and Hulu.

I despise Bloomberg’s nanny-state agenda, but I have to defend him from this flawed accusation. Bloomberg has not purchased a single vote. That is illegal. He is spending his money to buy advertising. Putting your message out there does not buy votes, as voters are free to ignore those messages or even choose to actively support another candidate instead. What those accusing Bloomberg of “buying” the election really want is more limitations on free speech – which means either the extremely unlikely prospect of overturning Supreme Court precedent or actually passing an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

That is not going to happen.

If anything, we should be loosening campaign finance law, not making it more strict. Making the parties stronger would make it easier to block fringe or otherwise loopy candidates and incentivize the remaining candidates to appeal to a broader base instead of special interest PACs and their issue advocacy. More importantly, though, the federal government is far too deep into policing campaign spending and speech, and if we truly value the First Amendment that should be something we adamantly oppose.