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Campaign Finance Laws are Absurd – Throw Them All Out!

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I've recently been exposed to several examples of campaign finance laws in action here in Texas and it has become clear to me that these laws are inconsistent, arbitrary, and absurd. They seem to serve little purpose but to hide what the actual sources of money are and to create jobs for political middlemen and armies of lawyers and accountants. I guess creating all of those jobs is a good thing, but I'd rather see those kinds of jobs vacant and those particular hacks walking the streets looking for honest work.

The same problems exist with national campaign finance laws, which are just another level of complexity added onto state laws. Some progress was made with the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United vs. FEC case earlier this year, but there remain many inconsistent campaign finance laws on the federal level and even more on the state level.

In one recent example just covered in the news, the Texas Green Party got its candidates on the ballot using money from an out of state PAC which provided over $500,000 to finance a petition drive. This was theoretically a rule violation, but the party went to court and got a ruling that the cost of getting petitions signed was an administrative expense, which made the PAC contribution legal, because the campaign finance law allows PAC money to be spent for operating expenses, but not for actual campaign expenses. What's more, the party is also distanced from the actual source of the money because they don't have to report who the PAC got the money from.

Similarly, a Texas PAC got in trouble for using money from a single donor outside the spending rules. The couldn't spend money for their candidate without violating spending limits for candidate ads, but could spend that money on attack ads against his opponent so long as they didn't mention their candidate's name. But they also had to jump through more nonsensical hoops. Although they got $250,000 from one individual, they had to scrape together another nine donations for a few dollars each to meet a requirement for a minimum of 10 contributors before their PAC could spend money. They got around this by taking a single additional $200 donation from another PAC run by a union which gets their money from multiple contributors. So that technically qualified them as a legitimate PAC — at least it would have if they had remembered they couldn't run any ads until at least 60 days after they began operations. And again, no one knows where that union PAC really got any of their money from.

The whole system is enormously complex, with rules which make no sense at all. You can hide where money came from by having a PAC collect it and then give it to the candidate, or by having a PAC spend money directly on ads against your opponent while the campaign spends its money for its candidate. There are strict limits on what corporations and individuals can give the candidates, but they can give huge amounts to PACs and that gets around the restrictions. Or you can just have all your employees and relatives give the maximum amount until it adds up to millions.

All of this is ostensibly to try to make elections more fair, but all it really does is give an edge to those who know how to use the loopholes and game the system. The Supreme Court has already ruled that a campaign contribution is essentially free speech, so why not just scrap the entire burdensome mess and take that to its logical extreme and really make the system free and open?

Let people and businesses and groups and PACs and unions and anyone else spend all the money they want for any cause or candidate they like, directly or indirectly. You may complain that this means they can "buy" an election, but the truth is that one way or another they can already get around the restrictions, and with PACs in the game the federal restrictions actually limit small donors more than they limit big groups or corporations.

There should be just one restriction. All donations should be public. You have a right to free speech, but you don't have a right to that speech being private if it's in the form of money being spent in a public election. All candidates and all PACs and any other group financing campaigns or political activism should be require to publicly disclose all of their donors on their web site with contact information so that anyone can research them. If the money came from a PAC or a group, that organization should be required to provide its sources as well, so that no matter how many hands the money goes through, it's all accessible for those willing to do the research.

This puts the responsibility on the voter, where it really should be, to do a minimal amount of work to figure out who is really behind the candidates or the groups they are being asked to support. What's more, in an open system like this, opponents and public interest groups will go out and do the research for the voter, so if a candidate is taking money from a questionable source it will be used against him by the opposition, a possibility which will make candidates reluctant to get in bed with corrupt unions or greedy corporations. In fact, it will raise the value of citizen donors, because many candidates will find it advantageous to finance a campaign on smaller donations from individuals and small interest groups with good reputations and still maintain a positive public image. And with limits lifted those donations from individuals and smaller groups can be larger and more effective.

Past campaign finance reform efforts have clearly not worked, because they keep adding more special restrictions and exceptions to those restrictions, piling up layer on layer of arcane rules until none of it makes any sense and it doesn't do the job it was intended to do. If anything it adds to the abuse and corruption. You can't fix a failed concept by adding more of the same.

So strip it all away and start over. Let everyone spend what they want, but hold them accountable and let them do it in the light of day. The unfamiliar honesty might be good for the country.

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About Dave Nalle

Dave Nalle is Executive Director of the Texas Liberty Foundation, Chairman of the Center for Foreign and Defense Policy, South Central Regional Director for the Republican Liberty Caucus and an advisory board member at the Coalition to Reduce Spending. He was Texas State Director for the Gary Johnson Presidential campaign, an adviser to the Ted Cruz senatorial campaign, Communications Director for the Travis County Republican Party and National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus. He has also consulted on many political campaigns, specializing in messaging. Before focusing on political activism, he owned or was a partner in several businesses in the publishing industry and taught college-level history for 20 years.
  • Doug Hunter

    Honesty, transparency, AND freedom…. nah, it’ll never fly here. The concept sounds nice though.

  • Baronius

    On what grounds should a person have to disclose his campaign contributions? In California, contributors to Proposition 8 have been harassed, some driven out of business. Our Founders wrote anonymously, a tradition that’s carried on today on the internet. It wasn’t the clout of a particular founder that carried the day; it was the strength of his argument in print. The same should be true in campaigning.

    We’ve been discussing the role of the secret ballot in the decision to join a union. The consensus is that the right to avoid intimidation is so basic a part of our beliefs that it extends outside the voting booth, to unionization rules. Shouldn’t it extend to financial support of candidates?

  • Baronius, campaign contributions from individuals aren’t private now, so for them it’s no change at all in the law as far as privacy goes. But making PAC contributions public and accessible would make a huge difference.


  • John Wilson

    Campaigns should be publicly financed because all private contributions are corrupting.

  • Baronius

    John, it occurs to me that I’ve asked you several times to flesh out a short comment you’ve made. If you don’t want to, fine. I am curious, though, what you think is corrupting about private contributions. My $5 check isn’t going to make some pro-choice candidate vote pro-life; it supports a candidate who is going to vote pro-life anyway. No one’s going to sell his soul for $5. Anyway, the voters aren’t under any obligation to support the candidate with the most ads. I’m not trying to pick a fight here; I just don’t understand your position.

  • druxxx

    Information should be key to voting.

    Informed voters have a right to know where a candidate gets his/her money.
    In this day and age, we will know more about how a candidate will vote based on where they get their money, then what they say or write.

    I agree with John that money is corrupting.
    But our tax money is stretched thin as it is. I agree with Dave to the extent that large contributions must be made public.
    How about any company, corporation, or individual contributing more then $500 total for one election.

    That way the little guy giving a small amount can avoid intimidation and the big corporation with deep pockets trying to buy votes will be known.

    And all of this kepps the idea of free speech intact.

  • Our Founders wrote anonymously, a tradition that’s carried on today on the internet. It wasn’t the clout of a particular founder that carried the day; it was the strength of his argument in print. The same should be true in campaigning.

    Hear hear! In my mind it’s more than just election finance reform. It’s about overhaul of the entire system. We need to return to politics at the District level. And we need to insure that prospective candidates each have a fair shot at the ballot. How we accomplish this feat is where it gets murky.

    I also believe, strongly, that our Presidential Primary System demands overhaul. To afford Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina pivotal roles in delivering national party nominees takes the power away from the rest of us. We need a system like Great Britain or Canada. We need shorter election seasons and stringent regulations on how campaigns are financed and promoted. It’s about level playing fields devoid of monetary influence.

  • John Wilson

    The ‘Media’ focuses on The Race, not the principles and issues. It’s the easiest thing to do, to avoid charges of partisanship and thus avoid losing readers/listeners/viewers, i.e., customers.

    Which is why I never read/listen/view the ‘media’.

  • Les Slater

    Dave #3,

    “…campaign contributions from individuals aren’t private now, so for them it’s no change at all in the law as far as privacy goes.”

    Not entirely true, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that some minor parties such as the Socialist Workers Party cannot be forced to reveal names of campaign contributors.

  • Of course, when Democrats tried to craft a bill in response to the Citizens United ruling, calling on all corporate contributors to be revealed and to take ownership of their ‘free speech,’ Republicans like John Boehner howled that they were attacking ‘our freedoms.’ [The giant loophole custom-built for the NRA made the Dems’ bill look very foolish indeed, but that’s a separate matter.]

    Just keep in mind that the ‘free speech’ we’re talking about consists almost entirely of 30-second attack TV ads. These have profoundly poisoned the political culture in this country, and I can’t think of anything good about them.

    In addition, members of congress are forced to spend more time fundraising than legislating. And of course this is corrupting.

    I agree that all the methods tried so far have been flawed. But just giving up in the wake of the abominable Citizens United ruling is not an option.

  • I doubt anyone can change anything. Both parties benefit, and they won’t get rid of their cash cow. I do agree that if the payola and lobbying ended, things might improve. Right now the money tree says this is the thing to do.

  • Here’s a practical Tea Party type strategy to create a “Citizen Congress”

    A Congress of career politicians will never represent “We the People”, because their highest priority is getting reelected with the help of Big Money.

    But “We the People” have more votes than “Big Money” has, and thus can end Congress as a career for professional politicians by never reelecting incumbents.

    We can impose single terms every two years, by never reelecting Congress.

    Always vote, but only for challengers. Never reelect incumbents.

    Keep this up until Congress is mostly “one-termers”, a citizen Congress.

    Then keep it up every election, to make a citizen Congress a permanent reality.

    Every American’s only intelligent choice is to never reelect anyone in Congress!

    The only infallible, unstoppable, guaranteed way to get a truly new Congress,

    and a cleaned up new politics is


    Nelson Lee Walker of tenurecorrupts.com

  • John Wilson

    Actually, electing non-incumbents may shift more power to the money boys since a good candidate wouldn’t have his record to support him.

    I’m not sure why a one-term congress would be less corrupt. It may be that each congressperson just has to steal more since they only get one shot.