The amount of money in state politics today is out of control and getting worse. A candidate running for the Missouri House should be prepared to raise between $40,000 and $80,000. A prospective senator will need between $100,000 and $300,000. I have no idea how many millions a candidate for governor in the next election will need to raise.
Where does this money come from? Each campaign has to file reports with the Ethics Commission. The reports are posted on a public Web site, so you might think it would be easy to find out. Unfortunately, it is not. The reason is most of the money pouring into politics today is transferred through political committees.
In previous years, the General Assembly limited the amount of money individuals can give to a candidate: $325 to House candidates, $650 to Senate candidates and $1,250 to candidates for statewide offices. The idea was not to limit the amount a candidate could spend on a campaign – possibly an unconstitutional limit on free speech – but rather to make sure the money raised by a campaign was not from a small group of powerful individuals. You want to spend $300,000 on your campaign? Then find a thousand people to give you $300, not three people to give you $100,000.
Unfortunately, lawmakers left a back door open by allowing political committees to contribute nearly 10 times the individual amount to a candidate in direct money and another 10 times in in-kind contributions, such as bus rides, bumper stickers, signs, etc.
What are political committees? Established by law, each major political party has them. There are four major types: county, House district, Senate district and congressional district. Missouri has 114 counties, 163 House districts, 34 Senate districts and nine congressional districts. So the Republican and Democratic parties each have at least 320 political committees that can make contributions.
The committees exist for lots of reasons besides raising money for candidates, but since the contribution limits were imposed the money game has largely overshadowed other functions.
Here is how that game is played: If I want to give $300,000 to my friend Joe who is a House candidate, I send out checks to 30 political committees for $10,000 each, and then Joe can request a $10,000 contribution from each of those committees. By law, the committees can do whatever they want with the money, so Joe might not get all $300,000, but chances are he will get most of it.
It is perfectly legal for an individual to contribute in this manner. In fact, if you used all the political committees to their maximum limit and all the money got through the system, an individual could contribute a little more than $2 million to a House candidate – $3,200 direct plus $3,200 in-kind times 320 political committees. The same individual could give close to $4 million to a Senate candidate and $7.6 million to a gubernatorial candidate. All this activity would be perfectly legal according to Missouri law. In other words, current limits on campaign contributions are a facade.
Unfortunately, it is a facade that is difficult to see through. Each one of these committees reports contributions and disbursements to the Ethics Commission, as does each campaign. So if you study the reports, theoretically you can track the money from an individual to a candidate. However, it is generally not a simple task. Political committees sometimes give money to other political committees, which, as in any shell game, makes it hard to track where the money came from and goes to. These committees are used so heavily that the amount of money flowing in and out of a committee also makes it difficult to track. Did Scott’s money go to Joe’s campaign or to John’s? The money can sometimes be traced, but months often pass after an election before we know who or what interest group financed a candidate.
The Senate recently passed a bill to eliminate all limits on individual campaign contributions while forbidding political committees from making any contributions. This is a good first step in reforming the way campaigns are financed in Missouri. First, it would eliminate the facade that we have limits on campaign contributions from individuals. Second, by eliminating the political committee shell game, it would allow the public to see who is financing candidates. Third, it might reduce some of the money flowing into campaigns because candidates might be reluctant to accept large contributions from certain donors if they know reporters and the public will immediately know about the contribution.
Let’s all hope the House passes this measure and the governor signs it. Though it will not take money out of politics, it will provide Missourians with a clearer view of who is funding our candidates.