WASHINGTON (CN) – The impact of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision allowing unlimited campaign spending by corporations might be offset by expanding the electorate and encouraging more small-donor contributions rather than imposing campaign spending limits, a panel of experts suggested Monday.
“It’s time to change paradigms,” said Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, who co-hosted the panel along with the University of Virginia Miller Center of Public Affairs. “It’s time to empower small donors and volunteers.”
Campaign spending on congressional elections by political committees and nonprofits has increased by an estimated 40 percent from 2008 to 2010, much of it on the Republican side, since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Panelists discussed whether this was a “Citizens United effect,” spurred by the 5-4 ruling in January 2010 eliminating limits on campaign donations by corporations and labor unions.
Malbin said the two possible responses to the decision are to disclose donated funds or reregulate campaign spending. He said he didn’t agree with either, but believed the response to Citizens United should be “nothing.”
He said it’s a mistake to believe that disclosure would have a major effect on the balance of power in the nation’s political system. And he said regulation is the “old strategy” to limit campaign spending.
Instead of trying to regulate campaign donors, which Malbin said would be akin to sitting on the lid of a pot and watching its contents spill over, he said it’s time to increase the size of the pot.
He suggested encouraging more widespread participation in elections by ramping up donor incentives, including tax credit rebates, and candidate incentives, such as matching funds.
“It’s time to shift gears,” Malbin said. “An approach based on participation can work.”
George Washington University Law Professor Spencer Overton also said he believe that spending limits, requiring candidates to work with the same amount of money, would not work.
“It’s naïve and unrealistic to accept that candidates will value formal equality over winning an election,” Overton said. He added that the government should inform citizens about massive campaign contributions “so that government is not captured by one small class of people in our society.”
He said he believed the courts would rule for disclosure.
Overton also supported the idea of expanding the electorate and encouraging including small-donor contributions to combat large corporate campaign spending. He said this could be partly achieved by modernizing the voting system.
Of the 75 million people in the United States who did not vote in 2008, 80 percent were unregistered, Overton said. He suggested creating a uniform system for getting immigrants registered at naturalization ceremonies.
Nancy Rosenblum, a politics and government professor at Harvard University, warned that because Citizens United left out political groups, they were being denied the same rights as corporations, part of “American antipartisanism.”
But she argued that political parties were the “most persistent force for creating voters,” and the “glue” of government.
“Links between parties and candidates are what’s needed, not firewalls,” she said.