Corporate Accountability

Senator McConnell v. the Founders

Most Americans think we need less money in politics, not more; less corruption and dependence on special interests, not more. Proposals by Senator Mitch McConnell and others to scrap limits on campaign contributions and allow politicians to solicit unlimited donations are wildly out of step with this common-sense view held by the people. They are also contrary to the wisdom of our Nation’s Founders.

Original research by Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, submitted in a brief in the McCutcheon case by the Constitutional Accountability Center, shows that our country’s founders were deeply worried about officials or government institutions becoming dependent on special interests or big money. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist papers, our democracy should have representatives “dependent on the people alone” — and not, it bears noting, just the people who can afford to write big checks to politicians.


According to Madison, the people who were to elect the nation’s leaders — the people on whom these representatives should be properly dependent — were “not the rich, more than the poor.” Unfortunately, as Professor Lessig has explained, our system of campaign finance “distorts and destroys the intended dependence the framers gave us” by forcing elected officials to spend a huge chunk of their time dialing for dollars, calling on a “tiny slice of America” to raise campaign funds.


Scrapping contribution limits would only make this problem worse. With the aggregate contribution limits in place, politicians have to raise money from a wider range of contributors. If the aggregate contribution limits were eliminated, however, the number of people funding federal campaigns would get even smaller than it already is. And if all contribution limits were removed, politicians could focus on an even tinier percentage of the already tiny pool of campaign funders.


The Supreme Court has never — not even in what is perhaps the low-water mark of campaign finance jurisprudence, the Citizens United case — struck down federal campaign contribution limits as unconstitutional. And it shouldn’t do so here.