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Omaha Magazine

Point Counterpoint: Campaign Spending Limits

Jan 01, 2022 02:17PM ● By Crystal Rhodes & Douglas Kagan

Photo by Arnaud Jaegers via Unsplash


by Crystal Rhodes

Photo provided    

 Running a competitive campaign is expensive and limits the number of people who are able and willing to become candidates. In order to be an effective candidate, you must be independently wealthy or engage in endless fundraising. The need to raise money becomes an obsession with candidates often to the exclusion of all other activities. 

The current system also facilitates a conflict of interest, real and perceived, that results when politicians receive campaign contributions from individuals and organizations with direct interest in matters before them. The perception that politicians are outright bought is probably unfair because most candidates do not accept campaign contributions in exchange for anything in particular from the donors. However, in order to maintain the donor relationship, those politicians do give more access to those donors which means they are given a disproportionate influence on policy making under our current system. Additionally, one of the most distasteful aspects of the system is the brazenness with which some politicians pressure lobbyists for campaign contributions. This dynamic leads to corruption and limits the interaction between the electors and the elected.

Compounding these issues, the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United that paved the way for unlimited money to be spent by special interests in elections. While there are maximum contributions at the federal level that can be given directly to the candidate, no such limitations exist in Nebraska for state and local races. This makes it possible for billionaires like Governor Ricketts, or gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster, to give unlimited amounts in legislative races which significantly impacts legislator’s ability to provide a necessary check in their legislative capacity to the governor’s office. Citizens United also codified dark money, so even though there are limits on what you can give directly to a federal candidate, there is no limit to what you can spend as an “independent expenditure” so long as you don’t “coordinate with the campaign.”  However, there’s a clever work around called “red boxing” – it’s a code to political action committees signaling what the campaign would like to communicate. The red boxes appear on campaign websites in full view so no one can be accused of “coordination” but it’s an open secret among political operatives and the practice means the private entities can have unlimited influence over elections. 

The problem with allowing corporate interests to fund campaigns is that it creates a political class that has lower participation from working- and middle-class people, despite the fact they make up the majority of the electorate.  That leads to policies that focus on corporate interests, exacerbate income inequality, and neglect the needs of the electorate. Reforms are necessary to rebalance the equation so we have the representative democracy Americans deserve. 

Commissioner Crystal Rhoades is the highest-ranking Democrat in the state, a political advisor, and former Douglas County Party Chairwoman.


by Douglas Kagan

Photo provided

 Money is not the only incentive that influences elected officials.  Political party pressure, personal views, and conscientiously abiding by the wishes of their constituents are strong motives for some.  Large infusions of ‘dark money’ represents a very small percentage, amounting to less than 4% of total contributions in the 2016 election cycle. Political action committee support allows a message to reach a wide voter base to help energize people enthusiastic and concerned about particular issues.

Campaign spending limits curtail our First Amendment right of freedom of speech.  Everyone has the right to believe as they choose and express themselves monetarily, no matter their income level. Proposals to restrict the involvement of individuals, political organizations, and political parties represent an attempt to muzzle potential contributors and distort the electoral process. In its campaign finance decisions, the Supreme Court repeatedly has ruled that monetary contributions to candidates and political organizations have First Amendment protections, because they directly involve freedom of speech and association. This decision rejected every other government interest as insufficiently compelling to limit campaign spending.  

Competitive House of Representative races have declined by more than 70 seats since 1996, according to CNN.  Over 90% of incumbents typically re-elected, despite (200) congressional approval ratings consistently below 20%.  Challenger campaigns must raise huge amounts of money to manage increasingly longer and more expensive campaigns.  A hefty war chest is necessary to counter the massive infusions of dollars given incumbents, who relish the opportunity to make it more difficult for a challenger to raise money and unseat them.  Incumbents can use their offices to campaign, spending taxpayer dollars to meet constituents.  Voters easily recognize incumbents by name and sight.  Officeholders gain free media attention simply by circulating in public.

With public funding, political parties and candidates would not depend on their supporters or members (300) as much for monetary contributions or voluntary labor, therefore less likely to involve them in campaign decisions or consult their opinions on policy issues, causing lower grassroots participation in campaigns.  If a substantial amount of the party/candidate income flows directly from the government instead of from voluntary sources, political parties risk losing their independence and become organs of the government, losing connectivity to the civil society.  Public funding preserves a status quo that maintains the major parties and candidates in power, making it more difficult for new political interests to gain representation.  This means that candidates must raise a (400) much larger sum of private money to overcome that obstacle.  Regrettably through public funding, taxpayers must support political parties and candidates whose views they oppose.  

Douglas Kagan is the chairman for Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, a non-partisan grass roots organization dedicated to freedom by fiscal restraint.

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