I’ve recently been exposed to several examples of campaign finance laws in action here in Texas and it has become clear to me that these laws are inconsistent, arbitrary, and absurd. They seem to serve little purpose but to hide what the actual sources of money are and to create jobs for political middlemen and armies of lawyers and accountants. I guess creating all of those jobs is a good thing, but I’d rather see those kinds of jobs vacant and those particular hacks walking the streets looking for honest work.
The same problems exist with national campaign finance laws, which are just another level of complexity added onto state laws. Some progress was made with the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United vs. FEC case earlier this year, but there remain many inconsistent campaign finance laws on the federal level and even more on the state level.
In one recent example just covered in the news, the Texas Green Party got its candidates on the ballot using money from an out of state PAC which provided over $500,000 to finance a petition drive. This was theoretically a rule violation, but the party went to court and got a ruling that the cost of getting petitions signed was an administrative expense, which made the PAC contribution legal, because the campaign finance law allows PAC money to be spent for operating expenses, but not for actual campaign expenses. What’s more, the party is also distanced from the actual source of the money because they don’t have to report who the PAC got the money from.
Similarly, a Texas PAC got in trouble for using money from a single donor outside the spending rules. The couldn’t spend money for their candidate without violating spending limits for candidate ads, but could spend that money on attack ads against his opponent so long as they didn’t mention their candidate’s name. But they also had to jump through more nonsensical hoops. Although they got $250,000 from one individual, they had to scrape together another nine donations for a few dollars each to meet a requirement for a minimum of 10 contributors before their PAC could spend money. They got around this by taking a single additional $200 donation from another PAC run by a union which gets their money from multiple contributors. So that technically qualified them as a legitimate PAC — at least it would have if they had remembered they couldn’t run any ads until at least 60 days after they began operations. And again, no one knows where that union PAC really got any of their money from.
The whole system is enormously complex, with rules which make no sense at all. You can hide where money came from by having a PAC collect it and then give it to the candidate, or by having a PAC spend money directly on ads against your opponent while the campaign spends its money for its candidate. There are strict limits on what corporations and individuals can give the candidates, but they can give huge amounts to PACs and that gets around the restrictions. Or you can just have all your employees and relatives give the maximum amount until it adds up to millions.
All of this is ostensibly to try to make elections more fair, but all it really does is give an edge to those who know how to use the loopholes and game the system. The Supreme Court has already ruled that a campaign contribution is essentially free speech, so why not just scrap the entire burdensome mess and take that to its logical extreme and really make the system free and open?
Let people and businesses and groups and PACs and unions and anyone else spend all the money they want for any cause or candidate they like, directly or indirectly. You may complain that this means they can "buy" an election, but the truth is that one way or another they can already get around the restrictions, and with PACs in the game the federal restrictions actually limit small donors more than they limit big groups or corporations.
There should be just one restriction. All donations should be public. You have a right to free speech, but you don’t have a right to that speech being private if it’s in the form of money being spent in a public election. All candidates and all PACs and any other group financing campaigns or political activism should be require to publicly disclose all of their donors on their web site with contact information so that anyone can research them. If the money came from a PAC or a group, that organization should be required to provide its sources as well, so that no matter how many hands the money goes through, it’s all accessible for those willing to do the research.
This puts the responsibility on the voter, where it really should be, to do a minimal amount of work to figure out who is really behind the candidates or the groups they are being asked to support. What’s more, in an open system like this, opponents and public interest groups will go out and do the research for the voter, so if a candidate is taking money from a questionable source it will be used against him by the opposition, a possibility which will make candidates reluctant to get in bed with corrupt unions or greedy corporations. In fact, it will raise the value of citizen donors, because many candidates will find it advantageous to finance a campaign on smaller donations from individuals and small interest groups with good reputations and still maintain a positive public image. And with limits lifted those donations from individuals and smaller groups can be larger and more effective.
Past campaign finance reform efforts have clearly not worked, because they keep adding more special restrictions and exceptions to those restrictions, piling up layer on layer of arcane rules until none of it makes any sense and it doesn’t do the job it was intended to do. If anything it adds to the abuse and corruption. You can’t fix a failed concept by adding more of the same.
So strip it all away and start over. Let everyone spend what they want, but hold them accountable and let them do it in the light of day. The unfamiliar honesty might be good for the country.
A slightly different version of this article also appears at Blogcritics Magazine.