Sunday, December 12, 2010

Campaign finance follies

By Bill Kraus

Let’s assume that there are no election statutes or rules. Let’s further assume that a bill is introduced which:

1. Requires candidates to reveal any and all contributions to their campaigns.

2. Limits the amount of money any contributor can give candidates, but not the total amount that can be collected and spent.

3. Authorizes Political Action Committees for people with common interests which can contribute up to a specified amount to candidates.

4. Allows candidates to contribute an unlimited amount to their own campaigns.

5. Allows corporations, unions, and other organizations to mount parallel campaigns for or against candidates.

6. Does not require those organizations to reveal the sources of the money being spent on these campaigns.

Would a sitting Legislature vote for it?

Not unless they are incurable masochists.

But this is the existing system. Most of the anti-candidate elements came into the system judicially not legislatively, but they are still a fully operative part of the package.

The amazing thing is not the fundamental unfairness of the system to the candidates but that there is no effort by those candidates who survive and become incumbents to change it.

Admittedly the judiciary doesn’t make it easy, but changes are still possible and some are even desirable.

The most radical would be to eliminate all the legislated rules and regulations and put candidates and third party organizations on the same footing. This is not likely to be well received by an electorate that is almost universally disgusted with the length, spending, and tenor of the campaigns spawned by the existing system which further de-regulation would exacerbate.

The more modest options are to take the few candidate protection-, playing-field-leveling steps that the courts haven’t proscribed. Yet.

Simply requiring the third party organizations to do the same kind of reporting on what their interests are and where they get their money costs nothing and opens up an “enemies” campaign strategy for the beleaguered and outspent candidates. They can identify who the people are who are saying all those nasty things about them and mount a defense at least and perhaps even an effective counterattack.

A more aggressive option is to introduce public funding of campaigns into the mix along with the spending limits and provisions for offsetting funding beyond those limits if candidates are being buried by third party enemies or millionaire opponents. This option is easily characterized as welfare for politicians, costs public money in parsimonious times, and does not sit well with the federal courts. It does, however, give non-millionaire candidates a fighting chance and may even discourage third parties’ participation which could lead to shorter, less intrusive, inexpensive campaigns where the candidates get to hold center stage against outside hijackers.

Either of these options creates an interesting new coalition: politicians, reformers and voters, all of whom would be allied against the currently reigning TV stations, campaign management professionals, and issue groups with money.

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