Debate Club

Campaign Spending Limits Protect Our Democracy from Corruption


Americans are outraged over the power of money on our government. In Citizens United the Supreme Court already increased the dominance of the wealthy and special interests on politics and policy. Now, in McCutcheon v FEC, the court is being asked to strike down one of the few remaining campaign finance laws that we have to fight corruption of our democratic government. After all, in a democracy the size of your wallet shouldn't determine the impact of your voice or your right to representation.

Coal executive Shaun McCutcheon and the Republican National Committee are asking the court to declare unconstitutional a law that says that no one person can contribute over $123,000 per cycle directly to candidates, parties, and committees. That's more than twice the average American household's income. If the court makes the radical choice to overturn its own precedent and strike down this common sense limit, a single wealthy donor could contribute more than $3.5 million to one party's candidates and committees.

That's why Demos and organizations representing almost 9.5 million Americans, including the NAACP, Communications Workers of America, Sierra Club, and Greenpeace, came together to tell the court: not another Citizens United.

Americans already think their government is corrupt because their elected representatives are more responsive to financial supporters than to constituents or even the public interest. And they're right. Research shows that government really is more responsive to the policy preferences of the donor class than to average Americans. This is true even when the policy preferences of the wealthy differ greatly from the majority of Americans, which often they do – particularly on economic issues. No wonder almost 80 percent of Americans believe that large political contributions are preventing government from solving the important issues facing America today. 

[Check out our collection of political cartoons on Super PACs.]

When big money dictates what's possible in public policy the current and long-term needs of American families are put in jeopardy. When corporations and wealthy Americans bankroll political campaigns, there's little hope that they'll be made to pay their fair share of taxes or prevented from receiving a disproportionate share of tax breaks. Progress on upward mobility issues such as the minimum wage, paid sick leave and family friendly workforce policies is stalled despite widespread support because they are opposed by (or not a priority of) the donor class.

That's not how a representative democracy is supposed to work. We need a political system that is responsive to citizens to advocate effectively for policies that reflect the priorities Americans share. But elections are increasingly financed by those who personally profit from the continuation of harmful business and environmental practices. They can use their wealth to build political power, then use their political power to strengthen their economic positions. No wonder so many Americans think the deck is stacked against them.

Funding for our elections is already dominated by a tiny elite donor class. According to the Sunlight Foundation, 84 percent of the members of Congress elected in 2012 received more money from the 1 percent of the 1 percent than from all of their small donors combined. Removing aggregate contribution limits would make a bad situation worse, allowing more than $1 billion dollars of new "McCutcheon Money" into our elections over the next two presidential cycles, according to Demos and U.S. PIRG projections.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

It's no wonder research shows that, in contrast to the affluent, low-income Americans have little influence over public policy outcomes – in other words, our government's decisions. But the donor class doesn't have the same public policy preferences and priorities as the rest of America, and it don't look like the rest of America either.

Americans' confidence in Congress – and its ability to check itself, rather than just chase big checks – has fallen to historic lows. We are moving closer to a system best described by the cynic's golden rule – he who has the gold makes the rules. Striking the aggregate contribution limits would further corrode confidence in democratic government and the legitimacy of our elected representation.

There are policy solutions available now to empower citizens and fight the power of big money over government, like small donor public financing and effective disclosure regulations. But the Supreme Court must stop striking down the laws that protect our government from being captured by private economic interests. We have the right to protect our democracy from corruption.

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  • Liz Kennedy

    About Liz Kennedy Counsel at Demos

    Supreme Court
    campaign finance

    Other Arguments

    50 Pts
    The Government Shutdown Shows Contribution Limits Are Needed More Than Ever

    Yes – The Government Shutdown Shows Contribution Limits Are Needed More Than Ever

    Blair Bowie Democracy Advocate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group

    49 Pts
    Striking Down Campaign Donation Limits Would Be a Radical Move

    Yes – Striking Down Campaign Donation Limits Would Be a Radical Move

    Lawrence Norden Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University

    46 Pts
    Creating a Congress of the Rich and For the Rich

    Yes – Creating a Congress of the Rich and For the Rich

    Lawrence Lessig Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School

    45 Pts
    The Supreme Court Could Be Creating a Right to Bribery

    Yes – The Supreme Court Could Be Creating a Right to Bribery

    Nick Nyhart , Kurt Walters Research and Policy Analyst, and President and CEO of Public Campaign

    34 Pts
    A Knockout Blow for Campaign Finance Laws

    Yes – A Knockout Blow for Campaign Finance Laws

    Susan Lagon Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University

    -37 Pts
    Ditch These Unconstitutional Limits on Campaign Spending

    No – Ditch These Unconstitutional Limits on Campaign Spending

    Rick Esenberg President and General Counsel of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty

    -40 Pts
    Freer Political Speech Strengthens Our Democracy

    No – Freer Political Speech Strengthens Our Democracy

    Ilya Shapiro Senior Fellow in Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute

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