Editor's note: Now through Wednesday, Colorado Politics presents eight perspectives on campaign finance reform.
Just as the sun rises in the east, somewhere, someone is bemoaning — again — the influence of money on politics.
These people also think that this time, as opposed to all their previous efforts, they have the solution to this problem. Like socialists who swear that the catastrophe of 20th century socialism wasn’t “real socialism,” campaign finance reformers always promise that this time they’ll get it right. Good luck with that.
Trying to limit the influence of money on politics is a fool’s errand unless — and only unless — you are willing to limit the power of government.
Even the Center for Responsive Politics, an enthusiastic supporter of campaign finance reform, says, “As surely as water flows downhill, money in politics flows to where the power is.” If that is the case, then the problem is not money, but power.
To limit the influence of money on politics, you must first limit the influence of politicians, which means reducing the power and scope of government. From what I can tell, however, the people who want to “get money out of politics” only want to increase the size of government to make it even more meddlesome. The more government regulates us, the more special interests have an incentive to manipulate that regulation for their own benefit.
In fact, trying to limit the influence of money on politics would itself increase the reach and power of government. Those with the resources to manipulate the regulatory environment will be the ones that benefit. Ordinary citizens of ordinary means certainly do not have the resources to hire the small armies of handsomely compensated attorneys necessary to legally comply with our Byzantine and opaque campaign finance laws.
Campaign finance regulations have, in fact, created the very problems that supporters of more regulation want to fix. Instead of giving to political parties and candidates, who can be held accountable, our campaign finance laws encourage donors to give to outside groups. These are the same groups that proponents of more regulation complain about.
Every election cycle, I’m interviewed by reporters about these terrible groups with benign names like “Coloradans for Good Things.” Wouldn’t it be nice if instead of giving to these groups, donors supported candidates and parties? Yes, it would be. Why don’t they? Campaign finance restrictions.
Ironically, these laws also give enormous advantages to incumbents and the personally wealthy. Incumbency bequeaths huge benefits on candidates. It costs a lot of money to get the same name recognition as an incumbent. And incumbents have lots of time while they are in office to build massive war chests from donors. Thus, incumbents enter most campaigns with an established brand and deep pockets. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the loudest calls for restricting campaign spending often come from those already in office.
As well, for decades, the Supreme Court has made it clear that individuals cannot be limited in how much they spend of their own money on their own campaigns. It’s their money after all.
But frankly, all of these practical problems with campaign finance laws pale in comparison to their constitutional ones. In a free society the presumption should be that citizens or groups of citizens should be, you guessed it, free to engage in the political process.
Even if you believe that money is not speech, it is still impossible to engage in meaningful expression without spending money. Waving signs on the street corner is not exactly an effective way to broadcast your message. Speech requires money and the First Amendment has something important to say about that.
In the end, there is no idyllic world where citizens can engage in politics that does not require spending money. However, if supporters of campaign finance reform would instead like to constrain the power of government to make spending money on politics pointless, I would happily join their cause.
Joshua Dunn is professor and chair of the Department of Political Science and director of the Center for the Study of Government and the Individual at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.