Local Government
Commentary: Add Accountability to Campaigns by Lifting Contribution Limits

Commentary: Add Accountability to Campaigns by Lifting Contribution Limits

By Joel Fox.

The legislature brought this on themselves, all this outside money in the state’s candidate campaigns. Okay, not the folks in the current legislature, but this legislature, or at least the next one, can begin to fix the damage.

About $28-million dollars has been spent in California this primary election through Independent Expenditures, a new record by far. The candidates do not control that money; outside special interests not part of the candidate’s campaign craft the messages delivered by the Independent Expenditure efforts. Yet, it is the candidates who are held accountable by the voters. They should have the resources to make their case to voters and then let the voters decide the candidates’ fates, hold them accountable.

Legislative action created the current system.

In 2000, the legislature put a measure on the ballot to limit contributions to candidates. Arguments made in the state Voter Information Guide by proponents of the measure claimed success of Prop 34 would “clamp a lid on campaign contributions” and “limit campaign spending.”

It did neither. It shifted campaign spending to outside interests and increased it.

Opposition to the measure argued that candidates needed campaign contributions to get information to voters. The No argument declared, “The best way to reduce special interest influence is to fully disclose all campaign contributions and let the voters decide which candidate deserves our trust.”

Ross Johnson, a state senator at the time Proposition 34 was on the ballot, was a major supporter. Nine years later, as chairman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, he apologized advocating for the measure.

A few months later, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters charged that “…laundering campaign money to disguise its source is exactly what state legislators intended when they wrote Proposition 34 a decade ago. Its ‘strict limits’ were designed to give the appearance of reform while encouraging money-laundering and so-called ‘independent expenditures’ so that candidates wouldn’t be accountable to voters for their sources of campaign funds.

Discussion about campaign finance nowadays usually centers on the U.S. Supreme Court’sCitizens United decision with the loudest critics claiming that “corporate” money is despoiling democracy. Truth be told, union backed Independent Expenditure committees outspend corporations in California as revealed by a study issued a couple of years ago.

But which interests are the biggest spenders is beside the point. The idea that others besides the responsible parties, the candidate and her or his team, have the greatest impact on a campaign is what’s eating at the foundation of democracy.

The simple answer is often the best. As the opponents of Proposition 34 said when it was on the ballot, allow direct contributions to the candidate, disclose the contributions immediately, and let the candidates spend the money as they wish while their opponents and the media keep score and inform the voters.

Originally posted at Fox & Hounds Daily.

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