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Time to Dump Campaign Finance Rules

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

Money in politics and the rules surrounding it are getting way too complicated. Luckily, there’s an easy answer.

Eliminate them.

With soft money, IE’s, 501c’s, Super-PACs and whatever is the latest flavor du jour in campaign finance, you need a scorecard and an accounting degree just to follow the money.

Which is the purpose, of course. Almost every new gizmo in the fundraiser’s tool bag is designed to game the system, to get around the increasing restrictions surrounding money in politics.

How are those rules working? Well, you be the judge.

Last April, President Barack Obama was in San Francisco on a fund-raising swing. One of the stops was an exclusive dinner for 60 at the home of a Democratic donor. Price per napkin: $35,800.

Since the contribution limit for an individual donor in a presidential race is $2,500, that dinner bill seems a little excessive, even if it does include a picture with the president. But in politics, where there’s a financial need, there’s a way around the rules.

Of that $35,800, $5,000 went to Obama’s presidential campaign, $2,500 for his hard-fought Democratic primary campaign (guess who’s going to win?), and $2,500 for the fall campaign. The other $30,800 went to the Democratic National Committee, which will spend much of it getting Obama re-elected next year.

And the annual maximum a person can give to a political party committee? Why, $30,800, of course.

Then there are the independent expenditure committees that spring up every election cycle. While California sets individual contribution limits of $3,600 for a legislative race, $6,000 for a constitutional office contest and $24,100 for a gubernatorial face-off, there’s no limit to how much someone can give to an IE.

But, in return, those IE’s can’t have any contact with the campaigns they’re supporting, with strict rules against coordination. So it was just serendipity that in the summer of 2010, a couple of independent committees formed up and decided to spend a few million to support Jerry Brown and attack Meg Whitman, allowing Brown to raise money without having to spend any of it to answer Whitman’s non-stop attacks.

And it was coincidence that when Brown started putting his money into the race in the fall, many of those IE’s just quietly faded from the scene.

Of course, those same rules didn’t really apply to Whitman, since the Supreme Court has ruled that there’s no limit to how much someone can spend on his or her own campaign. So Whitman decided to use $144 million of her own money in the race, which likely would have obliterated any Democratic candidate who wasn’t a former governor/secretary of state/attorney general/Oakland mayor with the most recognizable political name in California.

As soon as new rules are made to even the fiscal playing field, candidates and their handlers will find new ways to circumvent them. And that’s never going to change.

So end the game playing and just dump the campaign finance rules. Or almost all the rules.

Contribution limits? Who needs them? Soft money given to party committees? Why bother. Independent expenditure committees? Dump them. Why go through all the bother to enrich the lawyers when you can just give unlimited money directly to the candidate of your choice.

But the one rule that stays is disclosure and it gets even tougher.

In exchange for dropping spending limits, absolutely everything must be disclosed. And quickly. PG&E wants to give $1 million to a candidate for Assembly? No problem, as long as the candidate reports it within 48 hours.

And what about the Super-PACs that get a chunk of their money from non-profit committees that don’t have to disclose their donors? Full-disclosure means just that. If you can’t – or won’t — say where your money comes from, you can’t play.

None of this running out the clock or waiting until after the election to come out with that full report of where your money came from. Again, full disclosure within 48 hours.

All filings have to be done electronically, too. This is the 21st century, after all.

Ending contribution limits and other restrictions won’t put more money into political campaigns; it would just provide a more honest accounting of the money that’s already out there.

It will also force candidates to be up front with their finances and how the money is used. No more playing Mister Nice Guy while leaving your IE’s sling mud at your opponent.

But most importantly, voters will be able to see exactly how much money a candidate has and where it’s coming from and then decide whether it makes a difference in who they support.

Maybe a huge donation from the Koch brothers or George Soros doesn’t bother a voter. Maybe the $50,000 from the SEIU or the NRA that otherwise would have been nearly invisible in an independent expenditure committee becomes a dealbreaker when it shows up instead on a candidate’s financial report.

The campaign finance system we have now isn’t working and fiddling around the edges hasn’t made it any better. Maybe it’s time to take a deep breath, clear the useless thicket of regulations and just let the sunlight shine on political money.

Then we can let the voters decide how important those contributions are to their choices on election day.

 

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