Unlimited Contributions Is Not the Answer to Unlimited Contributions

The National Journal reported Tuesday that an increase in political spending by outside groups "has stirred favorable rumblings about a campaign finance proposal once favored only by GOP lawmakers: unlimited donations and full transparency."

While proposals like this have been floating around for a while, one stuck out: the "Citizen Legislature and Political Freedom Act," a bill introduced in 2001, during the height of debate over the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. That Orwellian-named bill would have thrown out limitations on campaign contributions and expanded disclosure requirements.

Former Rep. John Doolittle, a Republican Congressman from California, sponsored the legislation. In 2008, he resigned from Congress after his ties to the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal made his re-election highly unlikely (a shady arrangement to pay his wife through raising contributions for himself didn't help, either).

Former Reps. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) also co-sponsored. DeLay resigned when it became clear he was heading to electoral defeat. Pombo waited around and was defeated. Both were walking scandals with deep ties to Abramoff.

In fact, Abramoff has a new book out this week, reminding the American people of our crass political system that has been corrupted by powerful lobbyists, their money and the never-ending quest for campaign cash.

In the past, the argument for people that want to get rid of contribution limits usually goes something like this: if there were no contribution limits, our politicians would spend less time raising money because they would be able to take one big $100,000 check instead of 20 $5,000 ones.

Now, with the onset of super PACs and other unlimited outside spending brought on by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, the advocates of deregulation are finding new friends. Elected officials just can't compete, they say. Taking five- or six- or seven-figure checks is the only way to survive. In return, supporters of unlimited campaign cash say that simply requiring immediate disclosure would make this all OK, because the public would know.

The first argument is illusory and the second doesn't solve the problem.

Instead of spending time with everyday voters, under an unlimited regime elected officials would spend more time with the wealthy elite. A system in which elected officials who are bought off by just one wealthy donor instead of partially bought by 20 wouldn't make the situation any better. And increasing disclosure doesn't mean a candidate is any less influenced -- it just means we all know it, just a little earlier than we already would find out. Greater transparency -- that includes daily, complete, online and searchable filing of information -- would certainly benefit our system, but it should not mean new steps backward when it comes to democracy.

That's why we support legislation like the Fair Elections Now Act and other small donor driven systems. With Fair Elections, candidates could run competitive campaigns for office by collecting small contributions of $100 or less from people back home that would then be matched on a 4-to-1 basis. Faced with the threat of outside spending, Fair Elections candidates could go back to their base of support back home to raise money to respond.

House Committee on Administration Chairman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), who has jurisdiction over this issue, made his position on unlimited campaign contributions clear at a hearing on the Fair Elections Now Act last September. "I would take the limits off individual contributions but make them reportable immediately, electronic reporting within 24 hours of receipt, so that everybody could know where you get the money," he said.

Our elections are increasingly funded and controlled by too few special interests. Around one-half of one percent of Americans actually donates more than $200 to candidates. With super PACs and other outside groups taking in and spending unlimited checks, often from anonymous sources, the voices of everyday people are already being drowned out by wealthy special interests.

Giving members of Congress that same option would only make things worse. Whoever is "rumbling" about this -- be they Democrats or Republicans -- would do well to push for an actual solution like Fair Elections instead of placing elections more squarely in the hands of Wall Street, Big Oil and insurance giants.