Large contributions to candidates and political parties corrupt and create the appearance of corruption, decreasing public confidence in government and our democratic process.
Even the Supreme Court agrees with that, despite the fact the five Justices pronounced that these anonymous attack ads can’t corrupt. Since Watergate, limits on contributions (as opposed to expenditures) have played a critical role in preventing quid pro quo contributions in return for improper commitments.
The Supreme Court has gone further, upholding measures that block easy avenues to circumvent these limits. The Court has upheld a number of laws to prevent circumvention, including the ban on corporate contributions to candidates and committees, limits on contributions to political committees and, you guessed it, limits on contributions to political parties.
Claims that the McCain-Feingold law made the situation worse by pushing the soft money that was flooding the parties to outside groups ignore how corruptive these contributions were when directed to the party committees. Indeed, Congress compiled a voluminous record detailing the abuses relating to party soft money – from “manipulations of the legislative calendar” for big donors to the sale of special access to favored contributors, including private dinners with congressional leadership, retreats to Telluride and meetings with the President.
As the Supreme Court noted in its 2003 decision upholding McCain-Feingold, McConnell v. FEC, “lobbyists, CEO’s and wealthy individuals alike all have candidly admitted donating substantial sums of soft money to national [party] committees not on ideological grounds, but for the express purpose of secreting influence over federal officials.” That these contributions went to the party’s coffers instead of the candidate’s own campaign account was of no import. Because of the “special relationship and unity of interest” between a political party and its candidates, the Court found that “contributions to a federal candidate's party in aid of that candidate's campaign threaten to create – no less than would a direct contribution to the candidate – a sense of obligation,” and thereby undermined the integrity of government.
Those who would do away with the party contribution limits argue that it would “institutionalize” the money, thereby bringing it within the system and enhancing accountability. But these proponents are willfully blind or disingenuous about the effects of unlimited contributions on parties. They are also unduly optimistic about the likely effects of their proposed “reform” on outside spending. Allowing party soft money would do nothing to remove the incentives for giving to outside groups, such as the 501(c)(4) “social welfare” groups Crossroads GPS and Priorities USA.
These groups allow their donors, corporate or otherwise, complete anonymity – something the political parties can’t offer. They have the crucial political advantage of being unaccountable. They can concentrate on attack ads, taking advantage of their anonymity while allowing candidates to stay “above the fray” with a positive message. Even if the party limits were lifted, outside groups still would draw millions of dollars because of this crucial political advantage. In short, allowing soft money party donations would simply open up one door for corruption without closing another.
Unlimited giving to political parties has a long, established pedigree of corruption. The disarray in the current law brought about by the Citizens United decision is no reason to overlook the lessons of the past.
The political parties are in no danger of disappearing, raising more this cycle, and in smaller contributions, than they did before McCain-Feingold banned soft money. As long as the parties represent big ideas and real choices, they will remain on the political scene. But letting them take unlimited contributions would only mean they would no longer bother to court small donors. It also won’t stop the outside groups’ attack ads from running between innings. Those won’t stop until one more Supreme Court Justice recognizes that those ads corrupt too.
McGehee is policy director of the Campaign Legal Center and heads McGehee Strategies, a public interest consulting business.