Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court recently upheld Philadelphia’s law limiting the amount of money that an individual can contribute to a political candidate. While advocates of campaign contribution limits cheered the decision, Pennsylvanians who cherish First Amendment speech rights should regard it as a loss.
The decision resulted from a lawsuit filed before the 2007 Philadelphia mayor’s primary, the first with contribution limits. The primary campaign revealed the dangers of attempts by government to effectively limit political speech.
Millionaire and self-financed candidate Tom Knox was able to get an early and commanding lead in the race, largely because contribution limits on his opponents severely limited their ability to compete with him. Local media lamented Knox’s “unfair” advantage and suggested that the only way to stop Knox would be through an independent advocacy group that could pour money into advertisements countering Knox’s campaign ads.
A few days later, a pair of citizen groups formed to educate the voters on what they considered to be some of Knox’s less savory business practices. The groups were first praised, then later denounced, for speaking out on Knox’s candidacy.
Now, following the new maxim that no political speech can go unregulated, there are calls by so-called “reformers” in Philadelphia to restrict the ability of independent citizen groups to speak out on politics. Apparently, the “reformers” have learned nothing from their earlier failure.
Regulation of political speech does not improve the political landscape or alter policy outcomes. Instead, such limits simply force citizens to choose other avenues to make their voices heard.
A citizen or group of citizens wanting to speak out on important issues will always find a way to do so, regardless of what limits are placed in their way. Just as the McCain-Feingold-Cochran campaign reform act spawned Swift Boat Vets for Truth and MoveOn.org, and Philadelphia’s contribution limits led to Working People for Truth and the Economic Justice Coalition for Truth, further limits will only force those wishing to use their political voices to find new ways to speak.
The greater danger for Pennsylvanians is that allowing government to regulate some types of political speech ultimately leads to all political speech being controlled and censored. It is hard to imagine a greater threat to freedom and democracy than allowing politicians to decide who is permitted to criticize them.
Nonetheless, advocates of campaign finance restrictions hope that the state legislature and home-rule localities will enact stringent campaign finance regulations. They contend that campaign finance restrictions will “change the landscape” and usher in a new era of governance that better represents the “true interests of the people.”
Pennsylvania’s own recent history shows that speech regulation is not needed to improve elected officials’ responsiveness to voters. In the fallout from the pay-raise controversy two years ago, 17 legislators lost their seats in the primary and 30 others chose not to even run for reelection.
Contribution limits such as those imposed in Philadelphia only serve to benefit incumbents, the politically well-connected, and wealthy individuals who can spend their own funds. Since contribution limits were enacted for members of Congress, successful challenger campaigns have plummeted by 50 percent.
Had contribution limits been in place for the 2006 primary elections for the state legislature, it would have been considerably more difficult for challengers to raise the resources necessary to effectively take on incumbents. Voters casting ballots are the best form of accountability, not politicians restricting who can speak and how much they can spend speaking.
It is time to take a fresh look at the role of money in politics. Contrary to what is often said, academic research shows that campaign contributions do not corrupt the political process. But experience demonstrates that limiting political contributions most certainly does.
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Sean Parnell is president of the Center for Competitive Politics (www.CampaignFreedom.org) in Alexandria, Va. Matthew J. Brouillette is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org) in Harrisburg.