Issue Analysis 6: Do Lower Contribution Limits Produce “Good” Government?

Sarah Lee, Communications Director

The Center for Competitive Politics


ALEXANDRIA, VA.  — The Center for Competitive Politics (CCP) has released an Issue Analysis report debunking the notion that lowering campaign contribution limits leads to better state governance. The report, entitled Do Lower Contribution Limits Produce “Good” Government?, shows that the alleged association between lower contribution limits and “good government” is presumptive, and that little to no correlation exists between better state governance and lower or stricter limits on campaign giving.

According to CCP founder and former Chairman of the Federal Election Commission Bradley Smith, the results can be used to make decisions on whether reform and strict limits on giving should be addressed. “Once again we see a gap between what advocates of ‘reform’ claim will be the result of strict contribution limits, and reality. If restrictions on First Amendment rights don’t in any noticeable way lead to better government, then we should reconsider whether to impose such limits at all.”

Proponents of restrictions on campaign contributions frequently argue that private campaign funding “corrupts” government, imposing waste, higher costs and poor government on tax payers. If it is true that campaign contributions corrupt state governments, this ought to appear in measurements of government effectiveness and efficiency.  CCP cross referenced a 2008 study conducted by The Pew Center on the States, published in Governing magazine, with state campaign contribution laws. The Pew study assigned grades to each state based on their adherence to good government practices and results. CCP then broke the states into three categories, those with low limits, moderate limits, or high/no limits on campaign giving.

What the CCP analysis shows is that there is no correlation between quality of governance and whether a state has stringent, moderate, or high/no contribution limits. Furthermore, the two best governed states according to Pew – Utah and Virginia – had no contribution limits. Other compelling results indicate that the two states offering full taxpayer-financed campaign options to legislature candidates fell in the middle to low end of the state governing rankings.

Supporters of strong limits sometimes argue that big spending skews political results. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held, however, that the First Amendment prohibits the imposition of campaign contribution and spending restrictions to attempt to “level the playing field.” Thus, restrictions must be based on non-partisan, non-ideological efforts to battle corruption. The Pew/Governing study is particularly interesting in that its criteria for “good governance” is based on neutral criteria unrelated to legislative policies, and because Pew has provided substantial financial support to groups seeking to demonstrate a cause and effect relationship between campaign contributions and corruption.

According to CCP President Sean Parnell, “So-called ‘reformers’ are unable or unwilling to demonstrate any real-world improvements in governance or the quality of life enjoyed by citizens as a result of limits on First Amendment rights. This suggests that ‘reform’ is more about trying to enact an ideological agenda than improving citizens’ lives,” he said.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.