by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist
After the reinstatement of limits on political campaign contributions last year, Missouri’s über donor, Rex Sinquefield, started more than 100 PACs so he could easily direct his money to the officeholders of his choice. This provided a legal means to skirt contribution limits and direct hundreds of thousands of dollars to his favorite candidates and officeholders, but it also made it easier to track where his large contributions were going.
The Missouri Citizens Education Fund, an outgrowth of the Missouri Progressive Vote Coalition, has analyzed whether Sinquefield’s investment in political campaigns has translated into votes in the state legislature. For the purposes of their study, they tracked two of Sinquefield’s pet issues: allowing unlimited campaign contributions, and directing tax dollars to fund private schools (aka vouchers).
The voting records show that 86 percent of Missouri House members who received money from Sinquefield voted in favor of allowing unlimited campaign contribution limits and 79 percent of members who received Sinquefield money voted in favor of channeling public money to private schools. It is probably impossible to prove Sinquefield’s donations directly caused legislators to vote a certain way; all this study shows is a strong correlation between campaign contributions and votes, not necessarily a causal relationship. However, one can be certain that legislators who vote as Sinquefield wishes will have a better chance of returning to Jefferson City in subsequent years.
It is a simple fact that in the wilderness of today’s politics, those political creatures with the most money have a better chance of survival. Sinquefield has made no bones about the fact that he is expecting results for his money. He would not have spent more than a million dollars in the 2008 election unless he was expecting a return on that investment. Sinquefield has made a career out of making good investments and intends to use his money to gain support for his ideas. While a strong correlation between contributions and votes might not prove votes are bought, it certainly seems a conflict of interest exists when a lawmaker receives $10,000, $40,000 or even $100,000 from a single citizen who is also lobbying for the passage of a bill.
For many governing bodies – the city council, county commission or even the hospital board – just the perception of a conflict of interest is enough to require a member to abstain from a critical vote. Unfortunately, no such ethical standards seem to exist in the General Assembly. And as the cost of campaigns continues to escalate, the influence of wealthy donors will continue to increase.
The sins of commission are bad enough, but the sins of omission probably affect more of us. Issues that affect the majority of people – such as access to health care and insurance, road safety and food costs – are pushed aside so issues of concern to major campaign donors can be debated at length.
Sinquefield is sincere when he says he is making these donations “to try to make Missouri a better place.” But if we only allow those with money to shape the future of our state, then whom will Missouri be for? Do we really want to live in a plutocracy, where only the wealthy decide what and who is important?
The only alternative is to start some type of public campaign financing system. Many people reject such an idea out of hand, not wanting the public to pay for political campaigns. But I ask you, if the old expression holds true and “You get what you pay for,” whom do we want paying to elect people to office – the public or the Sinquefields of the world?