Democrats wrong with plan to fund campaigns at expense of taxpayers

The top priority for House Democrats this new year is a bill to fund their campaigns at the expense of taxpayers. But the proposal would not just make it easier for politicians to get their hands on your money. It would also limit campaign speech. Campaign programs financed by taxpayers suffer from a number of problems, including corruption, bureaucracy, and forcing Americans to financially support candidates that they oppose. Perhaps the least sensible part of these campaign programs, however, is the spending limit that they would impose on participating candidates.

If the idea behind this proposal for campaigns financed by taxpayers is to make it easier for candidates to raise money and speak about elections, why would the government demand, as a condition of the program, that candidates must agree to limit their overall spending? Spending caps undercut claims by advocates that the campaign programs are intended to bolster speech rather than restrict it. They instead make the programs look like bribes to politicians who agree to speak less about elections.

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Speech is a good thing in our democracy, and more speech is better. Social science research indicates that campaign spending increases voter knowledge and engagement in elections. To see this in action, just look to the 2018 midterms, in which Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke set fundraising records in his unsuccessful campaign. Many observers have argued that his campaign spending not only energized voters, but helped Democratic candidates further down the ballot. These candidates got to “ride the wave” of his prolific spending, which would be much less likely if the government could limit how much speech each candidate is allowed.

Moreover, spending on midterms set new records as did turnout, which increased by nearly 30 million voters compared to 2014. The O’Rourke campaign is instructive in another way. Many of his donors gave in small amounts from all across the country. If spending caps were in place, candidates who reach the limit would have to turn away new donors or those who simply wanted to give again, even if the donation would not be matched. Many of these would not be billionaires. Most would be average Americans doing their part to support the candidates of their choice.

They should be allowed rather than told, “No, you cannot speak more through the campaign.” As Brooklyn Law School professor and former American Civil Liberties Union counsel Joel Gora wrote, “Public funding should not be limits based, but rather should provide ‘floors without ceilings,’ platforms to facilitate speech, rather than roofs to restrain it.”

This proposal to allow campaigns to be financed by taxpayers has many faults, but spending limits represent an unforced error. Subsidizing speech does not require limiting speech. The programs could simply stipulate that candidates will no longer receive tax dollars once their campaign hits the subsidy cap. Instead, such programs create ceilings. Spending caps give away the true motivation behind campaigns financed by taxpayers, which is greater government control over political speech.

David Keating is the president of the Institute for Free Speech.