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Rules of the Game: Some Say Nixing Contribution Limits Will Level Playing Field

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney wants to toss out federal contribution limits to candidates so they can raise unlimited cash like super PACs.

The Republican National Committee recently filed an amicus brief in the Danielczyk case, arguing that under the current system, which at least in the primaries has been dominated by super PACs, “traditional political parties and candidate committees are in danger of having their voices drowned out.”

Some argue that super PACs have already eviscerated the contribution limits. In Citizens United, the Supreme Court ushered in the PACs by ruling that outside players may raise unrestricted corporate and union money as long as they operate independently from candidates and parties. Yet the top presidential super PACs are staffed by the former aides, colleagues and political advisers of the candidates, note watchdogs who argue that super PACs are hardly independent.

But the high court stopped short of tossing out the long-standing limits on donations to parties and candidates. That’s a key distinction that keeps candidates one step removed from the multimillion-dollar corporate checks underwriting super PACs. The limit on what an individual may give a candidate still stands at $2,500 per election, for example.

“Whatever the problems are with super PACs, and they are very serious, those problems would become far worse if we removed the contribution limits,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. The Supreme Court’s 1976 Buckley v. Valeo ruling, enacted in the wake of the Watergate scandal, clearly established the potentially corrupting influence of unrestricted donations, he noted.

A ruling to throw out the contribution limits “is one that raises the specter of real corruption in a way that we haven’t seen since before Watergate,” Hasen said. “At least now you don’t have millions of dollars going directly into candidate campaign coffers.”

Surprisingly, some reform advocates are also taking direct aim at the Buckley ruling, which equated money with speech. The Buckley court upheld limits on what individuals could donate to candidates, but it threw out the post-Watergate limits on political expenditures, ruling that they violated the First Amendment. Reform advocates now pushing for a constitutional amendment argue that it should include a provision to establish spending limits on campaigns. It’s an ambitious strategy, at best.

“These amendments dramatically overreach and haven’t really thought through very well what their consequences would be,” said Brad Smith, chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics. Smith’s group has filed a brief siding with  the RNC in the Danielczyk case.

More realistic are pending Congressional proposals to revive some form of disclosure legislation, which Democrats failed to push through the previous Congress, and to impose new limits on coordination between candidates and super PACs. In the meantime, expect more politicians to join Romney in agitating for the same wide-open playing field that super PACs enjoy.

For candidates, “the incentive is going to be there to liberalize your own ability to raise money quickly, easily, without having to jump through too many hoops,” Smith said. “Pretty soon, it’s going to be clear that that’s the way that we’re going to have to go.”

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