Why don’t we limit money to politics like the French do?

Brogan is a volunteer attorney for American Promise.

My family and I are nearing the end of a gap year in France. A highlight of this adventure was watching the French presidential election in April where Emanual Macron defeated Marine Le Pen by a 17-point margin. As an American, it’s refreshing to see how a democracy works in a presidential election without spending billions of dollars.

By law, major presidential candidates in France cannot spend more than 22.5 million Euros (about $ 25 million) on their campaigns. We in the United States have no such limit.

Joe Biden spent $ 1.6 billion to win the 2020 presidential election. That’s 70 times more than Macron spent on his bid, but the U.S. population is only five times larger than France’s. There is no end in sight to the value of money in American politics. Biden spent three times more than Hilary Clinton did in 2016. One could argue that the high stakes in the 2020 election justified the huge spending, but that argument applies equally to France in 2022 when there is a war going on on the two NATO borders to its east. The only reason France spends orders of magnitude less than the United States on its elections is because the French have limitations.

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Not only does French law limit the total amount a presidential candidate can raise and spend, the government pays almost half (47.5 percent) of campaign expenses. That means only half of the election funding comes from private donors. The limit on the amount an individual can give is greater in France (4,600 Euros), but in the United States wealthy individual donors can easily circumvent our $ 2,900 limit by making unlimited contributions to political action committees. and parties that support their candidate.

In the United States, it is perfectly legal for corporations and unions to spend an unlimited amount of money to support a candidate. In France, corporate and trade union contributions are illegal. The U.S., like France, has disclosure requirements so the public can see who is funding campaigns, but there is a gaping hole in U.S. law because of our tolerance of corporate donations. Very wealthy donors quickly learned to hide their contributions behind the veil of political nonprofit corporations known as 501 (c) (4) s, without having to disclose their donors – called dark money. We just don’t know who is funding so many campaigns and political goals in the United States.

Why the difference in these approaches to money and politics? France and the US share the same democratic values. The principles of the French Republic are engraved on top of every government building – freedom, equality, fraternityis the French version of our founding values ​​of liberty and equality with a dash of and pluribus Unum. Our separation of powers is an idea borrowed from a Frenchman named Montesquieu. Why would an independent French Republic control campaign spending, if such limits are considered unconstitutional in America?

Two major news items circulating when we arrived in France exposed the lie behind why America could not control big money in elections. The first story has to do with a scandal from the 2012 presidential election in France. In September 2021, former President Nicholas Sarkozy was sentenced to one year of house arrest. His crime? Spending too much on his election campaign. To add insult to injury, it was an election he lost to Francois Holland.

The other story is the widespread protests against government restrictions on Covid. French citizens have the right to protest their government, just like Americans. Free speech is an important part of freedom. In America we have the First Amendment; in France, they have the Declaration of Human and Citizen Rights. These stories, when combined, prove that a democracy can have limits on political money and free speech at the same time.

Over the past 40 years, while France and other Western European democracies have adopted stricter campaign spending limits, the U.S. Supreme Court has taken America in the other direction by severely limiting the ability of legislators to set such limits. The court’s rationale is that money is speech and monetary limits in our democracy, for any reason other than preventing the crime of bribery, violate the First Amendment’s free speech clause. When I read Sarkozy’s story along with pictures of citizens exercising their rights to free speech on the streets of Paris, I saw how wrong the Supreme Court was on this issue.

Recently, the FEC court doubled down against Ted Cruz for the Senate in its long -standing position. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts removed the limit on donors paying the winning candidate’s personal loans in their campaign – a practice long considered high -risk for trading influence – because it has “ it is not an unacceptable goal to limit the amount of money in politics. ” In other words, the court doesn’t care if our political system is wrapped up in money and gives an advantage to rich people over ordinary voters.We have free speech! However, as France proves, limiting money to politics and free speech are not exclusive to each other.

French law regulates the conflict between speech and money by striking a balance between the democratic values ​​of la liberte at the equivalent. One value is no more important than another. The French strongly believe that candidates and citizens have the right to speak to the voters – $ 25 million is not nothing – but they believe that as strongly as their belief in creating the level of the playing field as possible for candidates and ideas. Money creates an advantage, so it should be limited. The U.S. Supreme Court, on the contrary, believes that freedom under the free speech clause is more than equal opportunity for candidates or ideas in our political system. Roberts explicitly rejected the concept of a level playing field in a 2014 case that opened doors to unlimited contributions from individuals to political parties and the PAC, writing: “No matter how desirable it is, it is not an acceptable government goal at ‘level. the playing field,’ or at ‘level electoral opportunities’ or’ equaliz[e] the financial resources of the candidates. ‘”

Decades of court distortions of the First Amendment’s free speech clause give Americans with the most money a constitutionally-approved advantage over our political system. As a result, America is now a plutocracy – a government run by the rich. Most of the money in our elections comes from less than half of 1 percent of the population, most of them living in a dozen wealthy ZIP codes. Plutocracy is not governed by We the People.

The overwhelming majority of Americans think it’s bad for the rich to have too much influence in Washington. But how can we pass laws that regulate money in politics if the Supreme Court says it is unconstitutional? There is only one answer. Amend the Constitution. Give legislators the power to regulate money in politics. The First Amendment will be protected, but the Supreme Court will have to balance it against the explicit authority given to legislators by the For Our Freedom Amendment to limit the amount of money in American politics.

Article V of the Constitution, which covers the power to amend, gives American citizens the latest say in how we want to govern. It is not easy to amend the Constitution but we have done it 27 times before. The Article V process is designed to be difficult so that changes to the Constitution will only be made when there is overwhelming crosspartisan support from American lawmakers and voters. The poll shows such a level of agreement that money should not give an advantage to American politics. Three-quarters of Americans, including 88 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of Republicans, support an amendment to get big money out of our politics.

Let us use this agreement to pass the For Our Freedom Amendment. My experience observing French politics this year convinced me that the Supreme Court was wrong. Money is not the same as speech. Money destroys our political system by giving advantage to candidates and ideas supported by big money. France is proof that a democracy can have both a free exchange of ideas and a level of play.

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