by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist
I wish someone had told me that there was no such office as Boone County dogcatcher before I wrote last week’s column. I mean, what am I going to do with 5,000 “Christianson for Dogcatcher” signs? Yes, I know you can turn them inside out and make garage sale signs out of them, but you can only have so many garage sales in your life!
All kidding aside, when you step back and look at the state of campaign financing, it seems like something that could only have been designed by a comedian.
And the current state of campaign financing would be funny – if it weren’t so sad. This summer our own Missouri Ethics Commission could have replaced “jumbo shrimp” as an example of an oxymoron on Wikipedia after it held a secret meeting – in direct violation of the open records law – to determine how to deal with the Missouri Supreme Court’s reinstatement of campaign contribution limits.
After being sued by the Missouri Republican Party for their breach of ethics and the law, commission members had a “do over” meeting to discuss the issue again. But this time, they couldn’t come to a decision so they decided to take time to develop a “natural” process to figure out how to make a decision. I am not making this up.
The ethics commission was not sufficiently acquainted with the issues of campaign financing to be able to make an informed decision on the matter even when considering it for a second time. Instead, as commission Executive Director Robert Connor put it, “They said, ‘We’re going to go down and come up with a natural process that works correctly in their mind.”
Good luck with that.
So candidates who raised money during the time of unlimited contributions have been left in financial limbo. Some have returned over-limit contributions; others have not. Those who have returned money are at least having a great time attacking those who haven’t. It helps them pass the time until the election 13 months from now.
Meanwhile, Rex Sinquefield, one of the state’s biggest campaign contributors, decided he had had enough with laundering his contributions through local political committees to get around the maximum legal contribution limit of $2,550 to a statewide candidate by an individual per election cycle. So Sinquefield established more than 100 political action committees, or PACs, enabling him to quickly funnel large sums of money to candidates and campaigns.
Of course, each PAC has its own Orwellian-sounding name such as “Missourians For Economic Growth” or “Missourians Supporting Teaching Excellence.” Cleverly, one of Sinquefield’s PACs – Missourians Needing Educational Alternatives, or MNEA – is designed to have the same acronym as the Missouri National Education Association.
Theoretically, with 100 PACs to run the money through, Rex could provide $65,000 to a House candidate, $130,000 to a Senate candidate and $255,000 to a candidate for statewide office. During the last quarter, he funneled several hundred thousand dollars through these PACs, including nearly $100,000 to Republican-turned-Democrat Chris Koster.
I know what you’re thinking: Gosh, that seems awfully limiting. What if I wanted to give $1 million to a candidate for governor even though the limit for an individual is $2,550 per election cycle? Well, don’t fret: All you do is create more PACs. In this example you’d need a total of 400 PACs.
To create a PAC, you’ll need a checking account and a pen to fill out the paperwork. If you create several hundred PACs, you might want to get a spreadsheet program to keep track of it all. It’s all legal and OK with the jumbo shrimp down at the Missouri Ethics Commission.
At the national level, every viable presidential candidate has abandoned the underfunded presidential public financing system, turning mostly to large private donors to fund their campaigns. Nearly 30 percent of the money flooding into the presidential races comes from “bundlers,” people who gather donations from friends and colleagues on behalf of a candidate.
Unfortunately, bundlers are often tempted to give their own money on behalf of a friend or do other mischief in raising money for their candidate. Last week, the Wall Street Journal declared “bundling has become the chief source of abuse in the American campaign-finance system.”
Well, I disagree. The chief source of all these problems is that the public really doesn’t care how campaigns are financed. Most people would rather adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about campaign funding. What people really care about are the things that most affect their lives: the quality of the roads they travel on, the quality of the schools their children attend, the wages they bring home, bills they have to pay and the laws they have to obey. And we care about the wars we wage and the promise of peace.
Unfortunately, the system through which candidates are elected – taking bundles of money from individuals and groups with vested interests – ends up having a big impact on how the issues we care about are actually handled by our elected officials.
What we need in this election cycle is an “always ask, always tell” policy when it come to campaign finance. Every time a candidate knocks on your door, gives a speech or walks in a parade, ask them point blank they how they will reform this system if you vote for them, and don’t let go until they tell you.
Because – whether you’re voting for a candidate for president or dogcatcher – the way a candidate’s campaign is funded can determine a lot of issues for you and your family.