September 28, 2004
On campaign cash

Campaigns for People is running an ad decrying the influence of money on political campaigns.


A grass-roots low-budget effort aimed at reforming how Texas campaigns are financed has begun circulating this week on the Internet and television in four Texas cities, including San Antonio.

Corporations need not send their contributions, said Fred Lewis, the organizer of Campaigns for People.

Lewis pitched in his own money to produce and air a 30-second TV commercial on cable's Comedy Central and "Hardball with Chris Matthews" on MSNBC.

The ad decries "special interests (that) have too great an influence at the Capitol" and urges people to become part of an "electronic action team."

They want residents to notify their legislators that they want campaign laws limiting the amount an individual can contribute to a state race.

Lewis said it's "shameful that between 115 and 120 individuals contributed more than $100,000, three people gave more than $1 million each, and one guy gave $4 million to state campaigns in 2002."

He said those contributions, which are legal, "breed cynicism among the electorate about who is hogging the microphone."

The nonpartisan Campaigns for People combines the TV ad, an e-mail campaign and yard signs to educate and mobilize people to fight for campaign reform, as well as to contribute to the online effort to keep the ad running, Lewis said.

The $20,000 collected to run the ad in Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio "is about enough to air for this week, beyond that, we'll have to rely on contributions" to get further airplay, Lewis said.

He said the Texas Election Commission, which issues non-binding advisories on the state's campaign finance law, "is toothless, gumless and completely ineffective" in regulating how races are financed.

Ethics Commission assistant general counsel Tim Sorrells said the Legislature empowered the agency to impose civil fines when a violation of the election code is found to have occurred.

"We don't enforce the criminal side of it" because lawmakers chose not to mandate that the agency investigate and file criminal charges, he said.

The ad, which began running this past weekend, will end Monday when U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, hosts a $1,000-a-person fund-raiser in Austin.


While I certainly agree with Lewis about the Texas Ethics Commission, and while I share his distaste about big spenders hogging the microphones, I'm a bit queasy about his proposed solution. I've mostly come around to the position that the First Amendment implications of contribution limits like these are too big to handwave away. What I'd prefer is much stricter disclosure laws, along with real power to enforce them, and I'd at least like to hear some reasonable suggestions for a public financing scheme for campaigns, as a way of leveling the playing field. I'm still a little conflicted about the whole thing, so don't be too surprised if my position on this continues to evolve.

Meanwhile, Carlos Guerra talks to Fred Lewis and Craig McDonald about the TRMPAC indictments, and Greg says what needs to be said about the latest outsourced editorial infesting the Chron. To paraphrase Ronnie Earle, being called "partisan" by the Wall Street Journal's op-ed page is like being called ugly by a frog.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 28, 2004 to Scandalized! | TrackBack
Comments

I've mostly come around to the position that the First Amendment implications of contribution limits like these are too big to handwave away. What I'd prefer is much stricter disclosure laws, along with real power to enforce them, and I'd at least like to hear some reasonable suggestions for a public financing scheme for campaigns, as a way of leveling the playing field.

I think you're basically right, Kuff. I don't see a problem with, say, an aggregate limit of $25,000 per contributor per year; but experience with the Federal campaign laws shows that people with money will find ways to get around contribution limits, and there doesn't seem to be any way to plug those loopholes without infringing on the First Amendment. So in the long term, contribution limits aren't going to solve anything.

So the solution has to involve spending limits, which must be voluntary (again because of the First Amendment). The only "bribe" I know of powerful enough get someone to accept meaningful spending limits is full public financing.

The problem is, public financing is the easiest thing in the world to demagogue against. Republicans will distort, "Why should the government subsidize politicians?" Of course, the government would be subsidizing campaigns; politicians couldn't make personal use of the money. And the government subsidizes campaigns already; it just does it in the most inefficient manner imaginable: it gives favors to special interests, who return some of the money to their supporters' campaigns. Public financing would save billions by cutting out the middlemen, but that response is a lot harder to fit into a 30-second soundbite than the initial distortion.

Still, I think public financing might have a chance with certain races: judges. North Carolina, not exactly a liberal bastion, implemented public financing for judicial campaigns. If they can do it, surely Texas can.

Posted by: Mathwiz on September 30, 2004 3:20 PM