Campaign finance reform vs. reality
Issueone.org lists about three dozen nonprofits that exclusively or substantially work to regulate campaign speech. Available tax filings show these groups spend at least $77 million yearly bemoaning the money spent on political speech. Yet academic research stretching decades has yielded little evidence for the basic claims of those who think government can make elections fairer or politicians less ‘corrupt’ by passing more limits on speech. What they lack in proof, however, is recouped in messaging. Money does not buy elections but it does buy perception.
Polls show most people view political spending negatively, as an ill-defined corruption. Candidates notice. Many presidential candidates this year heaped scorn upon "big money," Super PACs, “dark money,” and so on.
That politicians would embrace popular, feel-good platitudes in an attempt to win support is unremarkable. More interesting is how these former candidates who want more speech limits behaved when the pressure to win conflicts with their rhetoric.
In 2014, progressive New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio directed his top aide to run an alleged straw-donor scheme that funneled large contributions from unions and city contractors to sympathetic upstate candidates. According to a state report, “The evidence demonstrates that the de Blasio team coordinated its fund-raising activities” with state party committees “in order to evade contribution limits and to disguise the true names of the contributors.” Investigations remain open.
Dan Malloy became the first Connecticut gubernatorial candidate to take public campaign funds. His $6.5 million taxpayer haul included a sworn promise to forgo private contributions over $100. But when reformer bona fides collided with a close reelection, rules became optional. State Democrats helped their vulnerable candidate spending over $300,000 on mailers using prohibited cash.
They did so even after the Connecticut State Election Enforcement Commission (SEEC) and the Federal Election Commission (FEC) signaled potential problems. An FEC Draft Opinion stated: “The committee’s decision to proceed with the Governor Malloy mailer before obtaining an advisory opinion in this matter suggests that the committee . . . is . . . seeking an advisory opinion from the commission after the fact in order to bypass state law requirements for communications intended to influence a state election.”
A post-election SEEC subpoena started a multi-year stalling campaign by the state party that eventually forced the matter to the state attorney general - the first such commission referral in 17 years. The state party eventually made a "voluntary payment" of $325,000 but admitted no wrongdoing.
Many, including the SEEC’s lead investigator, think they got off easy: “Based upon the Democratic State Central Committee’s own certified federal filings, the Malloy campaign received well in excess of $1 million in contributions from a prohibited source . . . The public deserves to know what happened in the smoke filled room.” The U.S. Attorney has served a similar subpoena to the one the state party so vigorously fought. The feds are also interested in how staff salaries were paid and possible connections with the New York scandals.
Malloy and de Blasio could have argued money spent for political advocacy is protected by the First Amendment, the most cherished constitutional right. That unions, corporations, and government contractors retain the right of political expression. That research shows more political spending correlates with a more informed electorate. That restrictions on political spending have zero effect on public attitudes about government. That attitudes in other Western countries with much more restrictive campaign laws show no difference in perceptions of corruption. Finally, they could say the real corruption lies in evidence-deficient but constant pronouncements of a ‘rigged’ political system by nonprofits that fundraise off the perception that everything’s corrupt.
But they don’t argue these points. Because when it’s convenient politicians favor government hovering over our political process like a helicopter mom. They use the laws as cheap political props and discard them when they become troublesome. No better reason exists to scale back these laws.
Paul H. Jossey is a campaign finance lawyer and an Adjunct Fellow at the Center for Competitive Politics.
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