Earlier this week, the Pennsylvania Senate State Government Committee held a field hearing in Meadville, Pa. to discuss two pieces of legislation regarding contribution limits and enhanced disclosure requirements.
I testified on behalf of CCP in support of preserving the state’s free system of allowing citizens to contribute to candidates of their choice without arbitrary government restrictions.
Pennsylvania is only a handful of states with little or no regulation on direct contribution to candidates. However, similar to many other states with recently-enacted contribution limits, a recent primary election with several large donors has prompted increased calls for more regulation. This is despite the fact that the amount of the donations received by one gubernatorial candidate in a primary race were legally received and reported, and no evidence of corruption or special favors was promised as a result.
To their credit, the three senators present at the hearing seemed sincerely concerned with balancing any new limits with First Amendment protections for citizens. Beyond that, however, very little was different from previous attempts by pro-regulation groups, in other states and federally, to add unnecessary limits and restrictions-and to generally create complex campaign finance regulations.
Senate Bill 1269 would impose contribution limits on individuals (contributions from unions and corporations are already banned in the state) depending on the office the candidate is running for, and overall aggregate limits as well. It would also increase disclosure and reporting requirements and provide penalties for failing to do so.
A representative from Common Cause testified in strong support of the bill, but suggested several “improvements”—all in the form of even more rules and restrictions. Some examples: banning inter-committee transfers, prohibiting fundraising events for candidates for legislature within 15 days of session, establishing pay to play restrictions, and increasing disclosure of independent expenditures.
None of the witnesses testifying in support of the bill offered any proof that contribution will limit corruption or improve the public’s perception of the legislature—essentially the motivation and intent of the bill. Rather, they offered anecdotes and rhetoric, and implied that Pennsylvania is in the wrong by being one of the few states that place First Amendment rights above regulation simply for the sake of regulation.
There may be room for consensus regarding improved disclosure requirements for contributions-other states that allow unlimited direct contributions to candidates, like Utah and Virginia, have more comprehensive disclosure than states with limits, which is a serious attempt to preserve the integrity of the legislature and provide voters with important information. That would be a logical step for the legislature in Pennsylvania to make if improving public perception is the actual goal.
Instituting arbitrary contribution limits, however, does nothing more than suggest that elected representatives cannot be trusted to run their own campaigns, and that voters are not smart or discerning enough to decide for themselves if they want to support a particular candidate given their financial backers.
This issue is likely to remain on the agenda in Pennsylvania through next year, and it would be a shame to let the generalizations and rhetoric of the pro-regulation community win out over cherished First Amendment rights.