An overly regulated campaign-finance system won’t combat corruption, but it does have unintended consequences – consequences that invalidating aggregate limits could start to address. To list a few (and for a full recounting, check out the Cato Institute’s excellent McCutcheon amicus brief):
Protecting incumbents: A Campaign Finance Institute study found that challengers rely on big donors more than incumbents, because as attorney Eric Wang argues, “Incumbents generally enjoy greater name recognition, made possible through more news coverage, longer histories of constituent service and access to official mail privileges,” while challengers draw from a smaller pool of supporters. Bradley Smith backs this up, pointing out that after passage of campaign-finance reform in 1972, “average incumbent spending advantage over challengers in U.S. House races has soared from approximately 1.5-to-1 to nearly 4-to-1.” And if anything contributes to the decline of our political system, it’s when entrenched incumbents don’t have the threat of electoral loss to maintain their attentiveness to the needs of their constituencies.
Stifling alternative political views. A system that protects incumbents undermines the kind of robust disagreements that should occur in a healthy democracy. During the 2012 Republican primaries for example, large donors – albeit through independent expenditures – prevented the establishment candidate, Mitt Romney, from marching easily through to the general election, because they propped up his opponents’ campaigns. This also happened with Ross Perot’s campaign, whose self-funding allowed him to promote a populist message that both sides that ignored, along with Eugene McCarthy’s influential 1968 anti-war presidential campaign, which was sustained by rich donors, the top 50 of which contributed to one-third of his financial support.
Elevating the importance of fundraising. I doubt the public wants to see our elected officials spend an inordinate amount of time “dialing for dollars,” but our current system forces them to do just that. Absent campaign finance, candidates could raise money from fewer donors and spend more time governing.
No campaign-finance system is perfect – whether deregulated, heavy regulated, or anywhere in between – and money can always be a corrupting influence. But the answer is to limit government, not free speech. As Ilya Shapiro has said:
To the extent that ‘money in politics’ is a problem, the solution isn’t to try to reduce the money — that’s a utopian goal — but to reduce the scope of political activity the money tries to influence. Shrink the size of government and its intrusions in people’s lives and you’ll shrink the amount people will spend trying to get their piece of the pie or, more likely, trying to avert ruinous public policies.