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Donor Limits Would Pass Court Test

Glenn Moramarco defends contribution limits.

Published: April 14, 1999

The Philadelphia Daily News
April 14, 1999

Donor Limits Would Pass Court Test
By Glenn Moramarco

Your editorial (April 7) is only half right.

You correctly argue that voters deserve to know the identity of the deep-pocketed donors funding this year’s multi-million-dollar mayoral race, but then you criticize the efforts of Councilman Angel Ortiz and reform groups such as Common Cause, who have put forward campaign finance reform proposals that seek to end the corrupting influence of big money through contribution limits, public funding, and voluntary spending limits.

Your statement that the Supreme Court has struck down limits on campaign contributions is wrong. In Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court upheld $1,000 contribution limits for all federal offices. Congress also adopted, and the Supreme Court upheld, the present system for funding presidential primary and general election campaigns with public funds.

Although the Supreme Court held that mandatory spending limits are unconstitutional, it upheld and encouraged voluntary spending limits coupled with public funding. The current federal system, in place since the Watergate-inspired reforms, is based on this principle.

In exchange for agreeing to voluntary spending limits, candidates in presidential primaries are eligible for partial public funding. In the general election, the major-party nominees receive full public funding and agree to engage in no further private fund-raising for their campaigns.

In 1996, President Clinton and Sen. Bob Dole made a mockery of their agreements to limit their fund-raising by raising millions in “soft money.” But Congress’ failure of will in declining to close these loopholes does not mean that contribution limits are unconstitutional. The bill put forward for Philadelphia by Councilman Oritz follows the model adopted by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court. He has proposed contribution limits of $1,000 for the mayor’s office, $850 for district attorney or controller and $500 for City Council seats.

The Ortiz bill also adopts voluntary spending limits for these offices, ranging from $600,000 for the mayor’s office to $50,000 for a district City Council seat. Candidates who agree to abide by these voluntary limits are eligible to receive public financing of up to half of the agreed-upon spending limits.

Voters in Maine, Arizona and Massachusetts have adopted similar reforms. New York City has operated under a similar system for 10 years. Ortiz’s bill is a constitutionally sound proposal for ending the influence of big money on Philadelphia politics.

Glenn J. Moramarco is a senior attorney at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice and a former assistant US Attorney.