Campaign Finance Battles Won’t Go Away

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

Campaign finance is in the news again as the U.S. Supreme Court took another look last week at who should be allowed to get how much from whom.

Regardless of whether the justices decide in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission to overturn the current federal limits on combined contributions to individual candidates over a two-year election cycle – and the smart money is betting they will – the only guarantee is that it won’t be the last time one group or another stands before the high court to complain about money in politics.

Because, with a nod to Jessie Unruh, money remains the mother’s milk of politics and as campaigns get more expensive, candidates need more and more cash. As anyone who’s ever been in Sacramento during the height of the legislative fund-raising season knows, lawmakers and wannabes have become increasing creative in ways to find that money.

It’s an ugly system that requires the same people who are supposed to be leading the state and the country to spend their days “dialing for dollars” and chatting up deep-pocketed types, many of whom have very strong ideas about how government – and legislators — can best serve them.

For many good government types, the answer to that disreputable system is public financing of campaigns, where in exchange for having taxpayers pick up campaign costs, a candidate agrees to accept only limited outside financing.

Great idea, except for a few problems.

First, it assumes that all politicians are essentially grifters, eager to sell their votes, not to mention their integrity, to anyone who waves money at them.

Second, voters hate the idea. Cities like San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and Long Beach have some form of public financing for local elections, but efforts to expand the idea statewide have been dismal failures.

In 2006, Prop. 89 would have paid all campaign expenses for statewide and legislative candidates who agreed not to take private contributions and financed the program with a $200 million annual boost in the state corporate income tax. The idea was beyond unpopular. It lost, collecting only 26 percent of the vote.

Prop. 15, a less ambitious 2010 ballot measure, would have set up a pilot program allowing public financing for the 2014 and 2018 secretary of state races. Voters still weren’t convinced, sending it down to a 43 percent to 57 percent defeat.

But the biggest problem with public financing is that it can’t work until the Supreme Court decides to overturn its 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo, which set the national rules for what is and isn’t allowed in setting campaign finance rules.

The decision also found that there could be no legal limit to the amount a candidate can give to his or her campaign, clearing the way for the parade of mega-rich folk who have made their way into California politics.

In 2010 alone, Meg Whitman put up $144 million of her own money to lose the governor’s race, while Carly Fiorina spent $5.5 million to get beat by Sen. Barbara Boxer.

Steve Poizner ($35 million) and Chris Kelley ($12 million) went them one better, spending their money in losing primary battles.

There are plenty of other names on that list of wealthy business types turned politician, people like Mike Huffington, Steve Westly, Al Checchi and Bill Simon, who each spent millions from their own pockets to run for office.

That list is mighty short of winners, of course, but the court-approved millions that self-financed candidates can put into a political campaign make a mockery of any public financing plan. Even the most generous proposal for voter-funded campaigns can’t come close to matching what a super-wealthy candidate can push onto the table.

Public financing can never level the political field when the richest office seekers are playing without limits.

That doesn’t mean campaign reformers should just surrender and accept what politicians from both parties agree is an ugly way to get elected.

Less concern about limiting campaign contributions and a heightened focus on showing exactly who is giving that money could bring an important change to the system. If big bucks donors weren’t allowed to hide behind the fast-growing web of organizations that seemingly exist only to launder campaign contributions, voters would have a better idea of just who is bankrolling a candidate and could decide for themselves if it makes a difference.

Writing about the need for transparency in government and public affairs, Louis Brandeis, a future Supreme Court justice, wrote in 1913 that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” A century later, it’s still true.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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