Politics & Policy

McConnell Can Make Super PACs Obsolete

(Drew Angerer/Getty)

As Congress and the Obama White House work to enact a funding bill to avoid yet another possible government shutdown, a rift has developed within the conservative community.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would like to repeal the limits on how much political parties may spend in coordination with their candidates. The congressional Freedom Caucus is skeptical of the proposal, because party spending is often heavily tilted toward “establishment” candidates. Other conservative groups, such as the Center for Competitive Politics, enthusiastically back the measure, saying the limits are unconstitutional.

We at Citizens United agree that the limits on party spending ought to be repealed, but Senator McConnell’s proposal does not go nearly far enough. Now is the time for real campaign-finance reform that empowers the American electorate, not just the political-party apparatuses.

The limits on party spending were imposed in the mid 1970s — and so were limits on individual contributions to candidates and party committees, as well as contributions to and from traditional political-action committees. And while the limits for some of these entities have been raised by modest amounts and indexed for inflation, the limits on individual donations to candidates remain woefully low, while the PAC limits remain frozen at their mid-1970s level of just $5,000. That is just a fraction of the cost of a single 30-second television ad in a typical media market.

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In an ideal world, the First Amendment would be truly embraced, and there would be no limits on contributions to candidates, political parties, or PACs. And there would be no spending limits imposed on these entities either. Those are the rules that govern campaign finance in many states, such as Virginia. By taking such bold action, Congress would make super PACs and so-called dark-money funding obsolete, much as the Citizens United v. FEC decision made the unincorporated 527 group obsolete.

#share#Perhaps the political environment won’t allow us to achieve that objective yet. But if, as Senator McConnell believes, Congress has the political muscle to eliminate the limits on coordinated party spending, then it can — and should — also raise the limits on direct contributions to candidates and traditional PACs to cover the past 40 years’ worth of inflation, and index them for future inflation as well. For individual contributions to candidates, the limit would need to be raised to about $7,500, and for contributions to and from traditional PACs, the limits would need to be raised to about $35,000.

And while they’re at it, Congress should also raise the current contribution-disclosure threshold to well above the $200 level set in the mid 1970s. In this day and age, does anyone really need to know the name, address, and employer of a $200 contributor? Of course not. The contribution-disclosure limits need to be increased to at least $1,000.

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The increases for individual and PAC contributions aren’t big numbers, and the amounts are certainly well below any corrupting-influence threshold. They do no more than adjust for inflation. The same is true of the increase in the disclosure threshold, which will significantly reduce the paperwork burdens on regulated entities while ensuring the disclosure of truly substantial donors.

Further, while a compromise of our ultimate goal of completely eliminating limits on political contributions and spending, these are reforms that empower the grassroots. They should be enacted forthwith on their own merits, but their chances of passage will be greatly enhanced if they are coupled with Senator McConnell’s proposal. Citizens United urges Senator McConnell to modify his proposal so that both sets of reforms are considered and enacted simultaneously.

— David N. Bossie is president of Citizens Untied, the plaintiff in the landmark 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. FEC, which permitted independent corporate and union spending on elections.

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