How Our Campaign Finance System Compares to Other Countries

With the Supreme Court's decision in the McCutcheon case, some people think we're heading for the complete removal of contribution limits from campaigns. Jeffrey Toobin, for instance, argues that the way Justice Roberts defines corruption—basically, nothing short of outright bribery qualifies—means that he could well be teeing things up to eliminate contribution limits entirely in some future case. Which got me thinking: if we really are headed for that eventual outcome, how would that place us compared to other countries? For instance, if you're a Monsieur Koch in France, can you write a candidate a million-euro check?

Fortunately, the good folks at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), an inter-governmental agency, have gathered this kind of information together. Of course, a large database of laws from all over the world is going to miss many of the subtleties and loopholes that characterize each individual country's system. But if you were thinking that other similarly advanced democracies must all have tighter laws than ours, you wouldn't be exactly right.

While International IDEA's database contains information on 43 variables for 172 countries, for the moment I decided to focus on two questions: Are there limits on contributions to parliamentary candidates, and are there limits on spending? I also decided to focus on the 34 member nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, since the OECD is how we often define "countries like us." And I eliminated Mexico and Portugal, where all contributions go through parties and individual candidates don't take contributions. So, what does the picture look like?

The no-limits nations:  Australia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey.

In these places, there are no limits on contributions, and no limits on what candidates can spend. But that doesn't mean that these countries' wealthy are writing million-euro checks to parliamentary candidates. It's important to keep in mind that the role money is able to play in politics is determined by multiple factors, many of which serve to hold down both contributions and spending, even when the law doesn't impose limits. For instance, most of the countries in the OECD have traditions of stricter party discipline than we do, and that makes members of the legislature somewhat interchangeable, which in turn can reduce the utility of buying yourself a few of them. Even more importantly, TV advertising is the single largest expense for most American congressional candidates, while in many other countries candidates are either forbidden from advertising on television or given free TV time. In most places there's substantial public funding of campaigns, and candidates are often forbidden from campaigning until a relatively short period before election day. Put all that together, and you have elections where, even if it would technically be legal to rain huge amounts of money down on candidates, nobody considers it worth their while (for instance, here's a nice description of the relative quiet of a German campaign). So the idea of someone spending two or three million dollars to get a seat in the national legislature, the way American House candidates routinely do, would seem absurd.

The all-limit nations: Belgium, Canada, Chile, France, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Poland, Slovenia.

In these countries, there are limits on both contributions and on spending. The contribution limits tend to be in the same rough ballpark as ours (the current limit for U.S. federal campaigns is $2,600 in the primary and $2,600 in the general). So in Canada, you can give $1,100 to a parliamentary candidate; in Greece it's $3,000 euros, in Iceland it's a little under $2,500 euros, and so on. There are a couple of outliers—in Japan, you can contribute 1.5 million yen, or $14,439 in today's exchange rate, to each candidate per year. Another is Israel, where a complicated formula will allow you to contribute a couple of hundred thousand dollars to some candidates.

But spending limits, which are quite low in most places (often in the five figures), make all the difference. Which brings us to:

The nations with limits on spending but not on donations: Austria, Hungary, Italy, New Zealand, Slovakia, the United Kingdom.

It does seem a little odd that you would have limits on what a parliamentary candidate can spend, but no limits on what someone can donate to her. But if you have the former, you don't really need the latter. If a candidate is only allowed to spend $20,000, she doesn't really have to worry about seeking out donations (a raffle or two down at the pub might do the trick), and there's no point in writing her a big check to try to win her favor. And finally…

The nations with contribution limits but no spending limits: Finland, the United States.

Not knowing much about Finnish elections, I'm not going to speak to what goes on there (though if I had to guess I'd say they're polite, thoughtful affairs). But for American candidates, it's the worst of both worlds. The lack of spending limits means they're always at risk of being outspent, which means they can never stop raising money. But the lack of contribution limits means they have to get that money in $2,600 increments, meaning they have to keep asking and asking and asking.

If we removed the contribution limits, it would certainly make candidates' lives easier; if you can convince one billionaire to write you a check for $2.6 million, that's the equivalent of persuading a thousand ordinarily reach people to give you $2,600, and that would free you up to spend a lot more time calling your opponent a low-down cur who wants to bring the republic to ruin. But would it make the system more corrupt? You bet it would.

As you look over the different regulations various countries have come up with, it does seem that the thing that makes all the difference in how campaigns are conducted is the spending limits, which are often combined with time limits on electioneering. Everyone has to weigh two competing considerations. The first is the desire for elections that retain a reasonable amount of integrity, and are conducted in a manner that is, for lack of a better term, civilized. And the second is the principle of free speech, that a candidate for office should be able to say what he wants, as often as he wants, and spend as much as he wants doing it, even at the risk of corruption. In most other countries, they've decided that the first consideration is more important. In the U.S., we've decided that the second consideration is the only one that matters.

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