Thursday, December 28, 2006

Case made for removal of campaign contribution limits

As of Jan. 1, the state of Missouri will no longer have campaign contribution limits. I wrote about this several times last year, including the July 12, 2006 Turner Report, in which I roundly criticized HB 1900.
Apparently, I didn't always feel that way. While rummaging through a box of old articles earlier this week, I came across a column I wrote in the July 28, 1998, Carthage Press, which ran under the headline "Throw out campaign contribution limits."
I wrote:

The amount of money spent on even the smallest of political campaigns is enough to scare anyone. It has prevented a number of people from entering politics.
But campaign contribution limits are not the answer. If there are no laws, the incumbents are going to get the lion's share of the money and the rich can finance their own campaigns.
If there are campaign contribution limits, the incumbents and the rich will still have the advantage. The incumbents are the ones the political action committees gravitate toward. Why risk money on an untested candidate, they reason. The rich can still spend an incredible amount of money on their own campaigns.
The embarrassing methods used to get around the campaign contribution limits have also made a joke out of the law. A close examination of financial disclosure forms filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission shows a number of fascinating ways politicians have found to get around the campaign contribution limits.
Sometimes, they receive the maximum campaign contributions from every member of a family, grandfather, grandmother, father, mother, each child, almost down to the family dog.
Other times, an incredible number of people from the same business donate the maximum allowable amount to candidates, everyone from the CEO and all the vice presidents to the receptionists and the janitors. And we all know how many receptionists and janitors have the money to spend $275 on a political campaign.
Another method that has been used successfully is taking a number of contributions from a single business, by getting the maximum allowable amount of money from each of its components. This can be taken to extremes with a politician receiving money not only from each separate part of a business, but also from each separate officer from each separate part of the business and from each family member of each separate officer of each part of the business. Sometimes, they also get their janitors and receptionists involved.
Toss out the campaign limits and make absolutely sure that each campaign contribution is documented thoroughly and reported to the Ethics Commission, with copies going to each county clerk within the campaign area.
Then the responsibility belongs to the press and to the voters. The print media, all of us, must do a better job of exploring where the money comes from to finance political campaigns.
We must print where the money comes from and then the voters should decide if that information is going to sway their votes.

Later in the column, I wrote:

Money does have an insidious influence on politics. That has almost always been the case and probably always will be the case.
As long as we (the media) show who's contributing to what candidate, how the money is being spent, then follow up by closely watching what, if any, effect that money has on the successful candidates' votes, the public will be able to make reasoned choices when they go to the polls.

While I am considerably more concerned about the removal of campaign contribution limits now than I was in 1998, the decision to do so could be if a good thing if the media does its job.
During the 2006 elections, I again found little evidence the media wants to examine anything about campaign contributions other than how much money each candidate has and how much the candidates are spending on advertising (and what kind of advertising).
Most campaign financing comes from special interest groups, not individuals backing the candidate of their choice. They would not be contributing millions of dollars without receiving anything in return. This money has influenced nearly every piece of legislation that comes down the pike, and unfortunately Missouri's news media has done a pitiful job of exploring these connections.
Now is it more important than ever that the media do what it is obligated to do. Unfortunately for Missouri voters, I don't see it ever happening.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow. What scintillating news: lists of contributors to campaigns. Like Americans aren't aware that there is big money behind most candidates.

If news isn't interesting, people aren't going to watch or read it. And if they don't do that, no one makes money. And if no one makes money, newspapers and tv stations go bye-bye.