Five reasons unlimited spending undermines American democracy
Field is the managing director of American Promise, which seeks to limit the power of corporate, union, political party and super PAC money in politics.
Despite what the Supreme Court has asserted, unlimited spending doesn't support democracy or free speech — and Americans know it. That's why more than 80 percent support a constitutional amendment to authorize limits on the influence of big money in our political system. People see how unlimited political spending is undermining representative democracy, distorting our economy and undermining public trust — and they want it to change.
Here's a recent example: Despite receiving cross-partisan support from across New Hampshire (citizen volunteers passed 83 local resolutions across New Hampshire in the lead-up to the statewide legislation) and in the Legislature, a resolution calling on Congress to approve the so-called 28th Amendment was vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu on July 11.
What could convince him to oppose the will of his constituents and the Legislature? Opponents of the amendment primarily argue that unlimited political spending strengthens democracy, increasing access to elected office and fostering productive debate, while limiting spending enables the government to limit speech about candidates and officials.
How do these claims hold up? Not very well. While the governor claims the amendment is "part of a national campaign designed to overturn constitutional protections of free speech," the truth is that unlimited spending distorts the principles established by the First Amendment. Let's break down this and other arguments against the amendment.
Would limits on election spending restrict political participation and limit speech?
In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court held that because money is necessary for speech, limiting money amounts to limiting free speech and that the spending limits proposed in the 28th Amendment would restrict political participation as well as limit speech.
The theory that spending increases access to the system does not pass the reality test. A tiny elite, .47% of Americans, donate more than $200 to political campaigns, yet these larger donations account for more than 70% of all individual contributions to federal candidates, PACs, parties and outside groups. And the current system is so dependent on money that the average House member devotes up to 70 percent of the work day to campaign fundraising.
Average Americans, who have a significantly smaller proportion of expendable income, are unable to compete with the super-wealthy — even when their spending is combined. If money equals speech, the corollary is that less money equals less speech. This argument undermines the promise of political equality that is at the very heart of our democratic principles.
Would limits on election spending violate rights of corporate shareholders?
Citizens United held that corporations are associations of people and that people should not be stripped of their rights just because they associate in corporate form. Thus, they ruled that corporations of all types — for-profit companies, unions, nonprofits and trade associations — have a right to spend as much as they want to influence our political processes.
Yet corporations — especially for-profit companies — are not just associations of people. Under the law, corporations are more than just collections of individuals, as evidenced by the special privileges and rights they attain by incorporating. The law makes a corporation liable for actions but shields is people behind the corporation. The corporate legal structure also enables them to accumulate vast wealth. And corporations, for which changes in regulatory policy may shift billions at their bottom lines, have unique motivations to support or dispute policy and election outcomes. Indeed, corporate interests are often contrary to the interests of the general public, and studies find that elite interests are much more likely to be reflected in policy outcomes than those of the general public.
Does unlimited political spending support the free market?
Allowing corporations to spend to influence government processes invites crony capitalism, where companies compete based on political influence rather than the value they create in the marketplace.
Crony capitalism undermines free enterprise, innovation and long-term prosperity. It allows big spenders to lobby for rule changes that block smaller businesses and innovators. It locks larger companies into an "arms race" where the demand for contributions has been likened to "legalized extortion." And it makes our entire regulatory system more costly, complex and unfair.
This is why, in one study, 10,000 MBAs from across the political spectrum identified our political system as the biggest barrier to U.S. competitiveness. This may also account for a lack of economic dynamism, in which fewer new companies are being launched and companies aren't expanding.
Would limits on election spending empower politicians to perpetuate political corruption and increase incumbency?
Opponents of a 28th Amendment warn that giving the government control of spending limits would inherently empower politicians and the government by enabling them to regulate how we use money to speak about politicians. They question how spending limits would be determined and caution against the dangers of government decision-making.
But the reality is the opposite. Incumbents and party leaders are now in the dominant position to demand money, punish those who don't pay to play and reward those who can pay with favorable policy. Most political action committee funding goes to incumbents and 40 percent of state legislative races are uncontested.
Fewer than 1 percent of Americans contribute most of the money in the political system and the corrupting influence of such concentrated spending is visible to all. As powerful lobbies for the pharmaceutical and fossil fuel industries pour money into our political system for example, legislation to curb medical costs and control climate change continues to languish in Congress — despite widespread American support for reforms from both sides of the aisle.
Unlimited money in politics, for both lobbying and campaign financing, has only served to empower the already powerful and disenfranchise the average American.
Would limits on election spending make Americans less politically equal?
Right now, your right to speech and subsequent ability to be heard and represented is dependent on how much money you have. A 28th Amendment would restore the right to political equality to every American. The Supreme Court's removal of equality from the Constitution is the most efficient, most effective way to rapidly allocate political power to the wealthy in this country and that's exactly what we've watched happen.
The court did not make a mistake; the justices have determined this is the correct interpretation of the Constitution. As we've seen in the past — when the court upheld slavery and denied women's right to vote — the court requires the action of the citizenry must change the fundamental rules of our nation by changing the Constitution. We the people have the power to control our lives and our nation's destiny through the amendment process. We must use this power once more to further the greatest promise of our nation: equality under the law.
Molineaux is the co-founder and executive director of Bridge Alliance, a coalition of more than 90 civic reform groups. (Disclosure: The Bridge Alliance Education Fund is a funder of The Fulcrum.)
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