Two Cheers for Increasing Contribution Limits to Political Parties

One of the criticisms of the Cromnibus is that it very substantially raises the amount individuals can give to political parties.  But this change was inevitable and generally positive. It was inevitable, because recent Supreme Court and lower court decisions have protected the First Amendment rights of citizens to band together for political messaging at election time. Without corresponding increases in the capacity to fund themselves, political parties would become a relatively less important political platform.

This development is also a positive one so long as it happens in concert with empowering electoral speech by individuals not connected with parties. Court decisions that have made it easier for individuals and groups of individuals to put out their own independent messages protect core First Amendment freedoms. Moreover, outsiders’ political speech makes it harder for our two political parties to engage in duopolistic behavior where they suppress discussion of issues important to voters, like the deficit or immigration. Politics is also a discovery process, and individuals may put on the agenda salient matters  that parties may simply not see.

But there is evidence that individuals tend to provide more extreme ideological messages than parties and may contribute to the election of more extreme candidates. In contrast, political parties are classic mediating institutions. They promote compromise among many factions, including extreme ones, in the interest of getting a stable majority. And the party discipline in turns makes legislative compromise between parties easier. Thus, electoral influence of political parties is also a healthy part of the political process.

Of course, faction can be another word for special interest group. And some groups who proclaim themselves interested in good government oppose this increase in contribution limits because it will advance special interests. But, as James Madison observed in Federalist 10, it is impossible to suppress factions without suppressing liberty as well. Liberty leads directly to the expression of interests.

There are better ways of preventing special interests from getting exactions from government. One is strengthening disclosure. Contributions to political parties are eventually disclosed, but Congress should require them to be disclosed immediately and over the internet. Modern technology will then allow opponents of special interests to connect the dots between special interests and special favors.

A second remedy is to adopt rules that inhibit special interest exactions. Note that at the same time the Court has been deregulating political messaging, the Congress adopted a ban on earmarks. It should also adopt a ban on regulatory relief targeted at particular individuals or companies.

Finally, we could adopt reforms to reduce the size of government. As government grows, more and more special interests will arise to live off it. Good government groups that are concerned about special interests but not the size of government are actually left-wing groups in ideological disguise.