Friday, August 22, 2014

Lifting the lid on campaign contributions

Under this ruling, tycoons will have one more relatively modest way of supporting the candidates and causes they like. But trust me: You won't be able to see a difference.

Posted on April 8, 2014 at 4:18 p.m.

The Supreme Court decision killing limits on total donations to political candidates means billionaires will be running amok. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson can lay out astronomical sums to help Republicans. Oilmen Charles and David Koch can see him and raise him. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg can burn through his fortune like a blowtorch.

Oh, wait. They already did all that. Under this ruling, tycoons will have one more relatively modest way of supporting the candidates and causes they like. But trust me: You won't be able to see a difference.

Adelson went through some $100 million in 2012, including $20 million given to a super PAC supporting Mitt Romney. The Koch brothers' creation, Americans for Prosperity, used $33 million trying to defeat Barack Obama. Bloomberg gave $10 million to a super PAC supporting likeminded candidates.

The angry outcry that greets every Supreme Court decision overturning campaign finance regulations seems based on the idea that somehow the money torrent can be turned into a trickle. Critics imagine that rich people can be prevented from using their resources to elect politicians they like or evict ones they don't.

The history of campaign finance says: as if. When Congress blocks off one avenue, millionaires find other routes — or bulldoze new ones through the wilderness.

After the historic 1974 campaign finance law tightly restricted donations to candidates, political action committees sprang up to give contributors another option. Facing limits on how much they could give to campaigns, some of the wealthy resorted to "independent expenditures," buying ads to help or hurt candidates. Others decided to run for office, since there is no limit on how much candidates can give themselves.

Not that curbing money is such a great idea. If it could be strictly controlled, the main beneficiaries would be incumbents, who are generally better known than challengers and have more ways to get free publicity. Outlawing soft-drink ads would not deprive Coke and Pepsi of market share.

It's hard to see why anyone thinks the regulation struck down by the Supreme Court really mattered. Federal law says you can give a candidate for Congress no more than $2,600 for each primary and $2,600 for each general election. As if that limit were not enough, it also says you can't give more than $48,600 to all candidates in a given year, even if none of the donations exceeds the individual maximum. So Adelson may give $5,200 each to nine candidates, but not 10.

But the court ruled the limit unconstitutional. As a result, he can fatten the coffers of additional candidates by $5,200 each. Considering that the average amount spent to win a House seat in 2012 was $1.6 million, his check is likely to buy him very little influence.

It may buy him none, since he's proof that in politics, money isn't everything. His 2012 darlings, Newt Gingrich and Romney, got beat. The Kochs impoverished their heirs for the pleasure of seeing a second Obama inauguration. Bloomberg's Independence USA super PAC supported four winning candidates but three losing ones.

All the efforts at banishing money from politics have been a bust. Since 1986, the average cost of a winning House campaign, adjusted for inflation, has doubled. The price of a Senate victory has risen by 60 percent. Independent expenditures on all congressional races rose from a total of $67,000 in 1996 to $125 million in 2012.

Most of this money is spent conveying information and opinion about the centerpiece of democracy: election contests. In the absence of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech, it might be possible to stifle all these efforts to communicate.

But if the wealthy are free to buy newspapers or radio stations to advance their political causes, it hardly makes sense to block them from buying newspaper ads or radio spots aimed at doing the same thing.

The overall contribution limit, the court found in this case, infringes on the right of donors to support as many candidates at the highest level as they choose. Equally important, though, it hinders the ability of those running for office to raise the funds needed to spread their message. The First Amendment, which protects the interests of both speakers and listeners, is offended either way.

As interpreted by the court in this case, the First Amendment also allows rich people to spend their money trying to get what they want. Like they couldn't before.

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune. Contact him at

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