Contribution Limits

Contribution Limits

In many federal and state elections, the size of contributions which candidates may legally receive from individuals, parties, political action committees (PACs), corporations, and unions are capped at a specific financial amount. In most states, individual contributions to political parties and PACs are also restricted. These limitations restrict the ability of individuals to associate with the candidates and groups of their choice, a problematic outcome in a country whose First Amendment guarantees “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech… or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”

The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that such limitations are only permissible when they are based on a non-partisan effort to reduce corruption or the appearance of corruption. The First Amendment, according to the Court, prohibits the imposition of campaign contribution limits that attempt to “level the playing field.”

Proponents of restrictions on campaign contributions frequently argue that campaign donations “corrupt” government in a variety of ways, from raising the cost of government through inappropriate giveaways to larger contributors to lowering the overall quality of government by diverting the attention of policymakers away from average citizens who opt not to make large campaign contributions. However, the Center’s compilation of the existing research on the effects of money in politics, and our own research on contribution limits and corruption cast doubt on these assumptions. Additionally, we find no correlation between contribution limits on individual giving to candidates and “good” government, or limits on corporate and union giving directly to candidates and “good” government, and thus look negatively on any legislation which seeks to needlessly limit citizens’ First Amendment rights through arbitrarily low limits on campaign giving.

Low contribution limits are especially attractive to incumbent legislators because they allow these officials to claim that they are not influenced by lobbyists or special interests (although research refutes the contention that the presence or absence of contribution limits has any effect on the factors influencing elected officials), and because low limits often perversely serve as an incumbency protection measure. Challengers, who ofter have significantly less name recognition and lack an established donor base, typically spend more time fundraising than incumbents. In this manner, limits on the size of campaign contributions have the effect of disproportionately harming challengers. This is yet another reason why the Institute argues against the imposition of low contribution limits on what individuals can contribute to their favored candidates and causes.

For an in-depth examination of contribution limits and their failure to achieve their stated policy goals, please read the Institute’s Policy Primer on campaign contribution limits here.

Articles of Note

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