There are several ways to fix campaign finance, raising contribution limits isn’t one of them

There are several ways to fix campaign finance, raising contribution limits isn't one of them

On Wednesday, the Joint Committee on Election Laws heard testimony on a number of important campaign finance bills, including the Massachusetts Disclosure Act and public financing of elections. Executive Director Pam Wilmot and I testified and answered questions before the committee for nearly 45 minutes!

Our testimony on the Disclosure Act emphasized the need for voters to know the special interests trying to influence their vote and curry favors with the winning candidate. There were few if any objections. In fact, some conversation revolved around how we can make the bill even stronger.

With the influx of outside money sure to rise during the 2014 gubernatorial election, the legislature has every reason to act quickly. If a fix to Massachusetts disclosure rules requiring corporations to report independent expenditures is not passed soon, large amounts of outside money soon to flood the upcoming election cycle will be completely undisclosed to the public.

In the 2010 state election cycle, outside groups spent nearly $12 million under new rules established by Citizens United in January of that year. Four years later, outside groups are much more adept at exploiting the new rules to sway election results in their favor. In 2012, outside groups spent nearly $1.3 billion in federal elections, nearly 60% was not fully disclosed because Congress failed to pass the DISCLOSE Act. Massachusetts will succumb to the same fate without swift action.

Disturbingly, many of the questions concerned whether the $500 individual contribution limit to candidates in state and local elections should be raised. House bill 595 would raise the contribution limit to $750 as well as the contribution limit to party committees and the aggregate contribution limit and would institute automatic future increases pegged to inflation.

The committee members’ argument hinged on candidates’ inability to compete with opposing outside groups that can solicit unlimited contributions. But the truth is that $500 is already well beyond what most voters are able to contribute. Raising the limit only gives wealthy donors even greater sway in the electoral process and in policymaking. Moreover, raising the contribution limit won’t deter outside group spending. Presidential candidates in 2012 solicited $70,000 contributions and yet outside groups still dropped $650 million in the race.

The answer to the dilemma of increasing outside group activity is public financing and greater disclosure, both of which combat real and perceived corruption of our government by large contributions to political campaigns. A robust public financing option would, among many positive results, allow candidates to more effectively challenge opposition from outside groups without raising contribution limits. Greater disclosure would expose the special interests winning candidates may feel indebted to.

The deluge of outside money since Citizens United has made a bad situation even worse. Fortunately there are several ways to mitigate Citizens United’s perverse consequences including greater disclosure, public financing, and a constitutional amendment to reverse the decision. Raising contribution limits, on the other hand, is yet another step in the wrong direction.

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