- The Washington Times - Monday, February 14, 2000

In a striking reversal of federal appeals and district court rulings across the country, the Supreme Court last month allowed state governments to strictly regulate how much can be donated to state political candidates.

While the court acknowledged that state limitations may protect incumbents and curtail effective debate, the burden of proof is clearly placed on those challenging any limitations. The court presumes legislatures are really only concerned with eliminating the appearance of corruption and not in protecting their jobs.

Justice David Souter wrote the decision, citing academic studies showing politicians act in line with contributors’ interests. The claim is that contributors influence politicians to do their bidding. But he fails to realize this might just mean that people only contribute to politicians whose views they share.

Fortunately, it is possible to disentangle these alternatives. Consider a retiring politician. He has little reason to honor any bribes, for re-election is no longer an issue. Even if earlier there were corrupting influences from donations, the politician would now have freedom to vote according to his own preferences.

Therefore, if contributions are bribes to make the politician vote differently from his beliefs, there ought to be a change in the voting record when the politician decides to retire.

This proves not to be the case. Examining the voting records of the 731 congressmen who held office for at least two terms from 1975 to 1990, Steve Bronars of the University of Texas and I have shown that retiring congressmen continue voting the same way they did previously, even after accounting for what they do after retirement or focusing on their voting after they announce their retirement. Despite retiring politicians only receiving 15 percent of their preceding term’s Political Action Committee contributions, they only alter their voting pattern on one issue out of every 450 votes.

If anything, these statistically insignificant changes even move in the wrong direction. Retiring politicians are more (not less) likely to favor their former donors. This makes no sense if indeed contributions had been buying votes.

According to voting records, politicians stay extremely consistent in how they vote. This holds not only when comparing a retiring politician’s record to his previous record, but to how he voted over his entire career. Those who are the most conservative or liberal during their first terms are still ranked that way when they retire.

The voting data indicate politicians are voting according to their beliefs, and supporters are giving money to candidates who share their beliefs on important issues. A reputation for sticking to certain values is important to politicians. It is why attack ads often focus on policy flip-flops if a politician is merely telling people what they want to hear, voters have no guarantee he will push that policy when he no longer has to face re-election. Voters are more apt to trust a politician who shows he intrinsically values certain policy outcomes because he will make himself worse off if he reneges on his promises.

If donations were really necessary to keep politicians in line, why would individual donors ever give money to a politician who is running for office for the last time? If politicians simply took positions to get elected, why would voters ever elect such a politician who would then be able to vote anyway that he likes?

Proponents of campaign finance reform have managed to claim the mantle of dislodging the entrenched political establishment, and unfortunately the arguments before the court ignored the existing academic research. But, in fact, the reverse is true: allowing large contributions is instead the key to letting new faces into politics. Existing federal and state donation expenditure limits have entrenched incumbents, who can rely on voters’ greater familiarity with them as well as use their government resources to help them campaign and generate news coverage.

Furthermore, it is very difficult for challengers to raise numerous small donations. Incumbents have an advantage here, as they have had years to put together long mailing lists as well as making a wide array of contacts. Allowing large donations would make it easier for newcomers to raise large sums from a few sources. For example, Sen. Eugene McCarthy would have been unable to challenge Lyndon Johnson for the presidency in 1968 without the six donors who bucked the party establishment and almost entirely financed his campaign. Nor would George McGovern had been able to continue his campaign for the presidency without Stuart Mott.

Donation limits have also reduced the number of candidates running for office, given wealthy candidates an advantage, increased corruption of the political process, and led to more negative campaigns. Why anyone thinks more of the same medicine will suddenly have the reverse effect is not obvious. Unfortunately, Justice Souter’s claims aren’t even back up by the research he cites.

John R. Lott Jr. is a senior research scholar at the Yale University School of Law.

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