This piece originally appeared in City Journal on March 12, 2020.
The political world is practically giddy at the failed campaigns of Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer. The Democratic primary’s billionaire candidates rediscovered an age-old truth: money can’t buy love.
It couldn’t buy love for Hillary Clinton, who nearly doubled Donald Trump’s spending in 2016 and had three times as many positive ads. Or for Jeb Bush’s wealthy backers in the Republican primary preceding that race. Or for self-funders from years past like Meg Whitman, Linda McMahon, and Steve Forbes. Money can help a campaign’s message get heard, but it doesn’t mean that listeners will like what they hear. Yet fears of campaign spending “buying” elections continue to drive our campaign-finance laws. The result is bad law and poor policy.
Last year, the House passed H.R. 1, a sweeping rewrite of campaign-finance and election laws. The bill would have imposed a variety of new restrictions on paid political speech. Its authors asserted that current law lets wealthy individuals and special interests “dominate election spending, corrupt our politics, and degrade our democracy through tidal waves of unlimited and anonymous spending.”
But as Bloomberg and Steyer found out, voters easily reject messages and campaigns with which they disagree. Congress shouldn’t assume that voters just buy whatever is advertised. They don’t.
A few years before H.R. 1, the Senate took its own shot at limiting political speech. Every Senate Democrat voted to amend the Constitution to give Congress the power to limit political spending. That pesky First Amendment just wasn’t cutting it, in their eyes.
The prospective amendment’s preamble said that the measure was necessary to “advance the fundamental principle of political equality for all, and to protect the integrity of the legislative and electoral processes.” It had nothing to say about the right of candidates and others to voice their political views, or the right of voters to hear those points of view. The electoral process has more integrity than many in Congress assume—giving incumbent politicians carte blanche to restrict political advocacy however they please is the true threat to our elections.
While these proposals are based on fairy-tale assumptions, the harm they cause is real. Current campaign-finance law is already so restrictive—and so expansive—that you can’t really say that it is about the finances of political campaigns. The laws apply to nearly anyone who spends money promoting a political message, not just candidates and campaigns. This body of law encompasses hundreds of thousands of words of statute and regulation, plus thousands of pages of advisory opinions explaining those words. Anyone who wants to speak about a candidate should consult a lawyer first. Is that what the Founders had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment?
In addition to harming our right to free speech, campaign-finance laws sideline well-qualified candidates who can’t navigate the complex legal system or can’t raise enough money under campaign-contribution limits. That creates a vacuum that wealthy self-funders have tried to fill.
A central goal of campaign-finance reform should be to make it as easy to support candidates as it is to run for office yourself. Steyer and Bloomberg both had significant personal flaws as candidates. But while they can spend millions on their own candidacies, they are strictly limited in their ability to fund other candidates. So Michael Bloomberg was able to donate half a billion dollars to his own campaign, but only $2,800 to Joe Biden’s. Who is this helping?
“Getting money out of politics” makes for a good bumper sticker, but the policies it leads to actually give more power and influence to the wealthy, not less. Fortunately, our democracy is more robust than our policymakers want to admit. They should just get out of the way and let the voters speak.