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Black, white and gray all over

Thursday, Mar 29, 2007

I’m an agnostic when it comes to campaign reform plans. It’s not that I don’t believe in reform, I do. It’s just that sometimes the arguments from the reform groups are so over the top that they undercut their own case.

The general rule in political journalism these days is that all contributions, no matter how small, are somehow tainted with corruption. That’s simply not true.

But it always makes for a good story, which is one reason we see so many of them. Reform group hyperventilates about corruption, big headlines follow.

Election reform activists on Wednesday proposed strict new campaign contribution limits in Illinois, saying the state’s long tradition of unfettered political donations has devastated public trust in state government.

Illinoisans “perceive that their government is for sale” after years of scandals involving the state’s unusual no-limit campaign finance system, reform activist Cindi Canary told an Illinois House committee. “Unlimited contributions … damage our democracy.” […]

Lawmakers pointed out that federal limits haven’t cleaned up politics in Washington…

This counter-argument is exactly right. DC is a cesspool of corruption, yet it imposes super-restrictive campaign finance regulations on itself. Moving to that system absolutely does not guarantee cleaner elections. Ask Jack Abramoff.

Also, an intricate system of campaign finance laws makes it way too easy to write pimpy little stories about how Candidate X “violated the law,” even though the violation may have been trivial and completely unintended. That potential is what really worries a lot of legislators.

At one point in the hearing of the House Election and Campaign Reform Committee, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, D-Orland Park, expressed anger that the presentation by the reform activists “makes it sound like we don’t return calls of people who don’t make contributions.”

McCarthy may have been overstating his case, but legislators receive hundreds of calls a week from non-contributing constituents, and most are conscientious about returning those calls. Nobody ever writes stories about that.

The measure also would limit to $20,000 per election what legislative leaders could give to individual legislators.

That’s something that sounds great on its face and I’ve been leaning towards it for years. Leaders have way too much influence.

I was talking to an old-timer the other day about when he was first elected to the House (he’s now a lobbyist). He recalled that in the late 70’s the House Democratic campaign fund had about $5,000 in the bank. These days, they raise almost that, on average, every single day.

But he was quick to add that this didn’t mean legislators were necessarily any more free from some type of party leadership influence. In Chicago and Cook County, local committeemen raised all the money for their legislators. Elsewhere, county chairmen were heavily involved in fundraising.

Anyway, the point is that despite what you often read, this isn’t a completely black and white issue. There’s a lot of gray and, believe it or not, there are a lot of decent people in politics.


- Posted by Rich Miller        

  1. - cermak_rd - Thursday, Mar 29, 07 @ 10:13 am:

    Whatever reform system is derived, they will learn how to game it. So why bother with reform? I really don’t think IL citizens are any more cynical about their politicians than say Missourians. And a pol that doesn’t pay attention to constituents (regardless of whether they are contributors or not) is eventually going to be in an uphill battle for survival.

  2. - Robbie - Thursday, Mar 29, 07 @ 10:27 am:

    Rich, how would you, or others, feel about capping the amount a campaign can raise? They can have it come from whatever dirty places they want. Basically a ’salary cap’ for campaigns. Additionally, instant transparency via the web would be nice.

  3. - An Archy - Thursday, Mar 29, 07 @ 10:33 am:

    The big problem is the soulless, solely profit-driven, trans-national corporate money driving today’s pol’s into an unsustainable, warring, global warming, system that puts people second. Stop corporation contributions and we’ll be better off.

  4. - Truthful James - Thursday, Mar 29, 07 @ 10:46 am:

    You are looking at the wrong end of the problem.

    Unless the incumbent/candidate is attempting to collect, invest, and feather away a nest for retirement (a savings function), the problem is quite simple.

    Campaign financing requirements are a function of the length of the campaign. Simple math. It costs $1MM a week to run a campaign, and spending starts now, for a primary in February 2008 and an election in November, how much less would it cost if all primaries were in August and spending could not start until July 1, 2008 and be limited to $1 Million per week.

    How much more time could an incumbent shape legislation or be part of the executive department?

    Campaign finance reform is a function of campaign reform.

  5. - Southern Man - Thursday, Mar 29, 07 @ 11:11 am:

    There’s only one real campaign finance reform: disclosure (fully and immediately). Everything else is just an incumbent protection plan disguised as “reform.”

  6. - Rich Miller - Thursday, Mar 29, 07 @ 11:15 am:

    “Southern Man” disclosure only truly works when shame is part of the system. There’s not much of that here.

  7. - Pat Hickey - Thursday, Mar 29, 07 @ 11:17 am:

    ” There’s a lot of gray and, believe it or not, there are a lot of decent people in politics.”

    Well said Brother Miller! The Reform Advocates - generally the advocates of clowns and losers who could not get elected to an office - not even an appointed ofice, mind you - get good press because they do not do much in between elections and gett all charged up on Reform Rage, while public servants like Kevin McCarthy put in very long work weeks in Springfield and back home.

    Kevin is very mild mannered guy - especially for a Leo Guy.

    Unlimited Funding for All Candidates! Give until it hurts - the clowns who can’t rub two nickles together.

  8. - Reddbyrd - Thursday, Mar 29, 07 @ 11:57 am:

    Kevin was right on track — for once
    As usual the reformers are not well informed.
    They lack any idea of how a candidate defends against the unregulated attacks that come from the national front groups.
    The failure to address this issue demonstrates how little real world experience the “reformers” bring to this debate.

  9. - Jeff - Thursday, Mar 29, 07 @ 1:32 pm:

    I like Lisa Madigan, yet am troubled that she accepted over $40,000 from Rezko, which she returned when he was indicted. She had to claim a conflict of interest regarding an investigation of the Lakin Law firm in Madison County, because of their contributions. Does anyone think she would have $2,000,000 in her war chest if her father were not the Speaker? What do people expect for these contributions? That is why questions of reform will always be raised and disclosure doesn’t correct it.

  10. - VanillaMan - Thursday, Mar 29, 07 @ 2:37 pm:

    What are they spending it on? Instead of trying to attack the money sources, how about focusing on the multi-million dollar crap slander ads on TV?

    For once, go French. Do not allow polls or any media, (paper, radio, Internet, TV) to run after August 31st.

    It would clean up the lying, grueling drivel oozing in the media, and cut the need for campaign cash too.

    Oh Yeah! If this approach was taken, our pundit’s bosses would lose millions, wouldn’t they?

    I love the idea all the more!

  11. - Levois - Thursday, Mar 29, 07 @ 3:49 pm:

    While I think there should be limits as to how one spends their money reading this I don’t know. I don’t like the role of money in politics today, but one needs it to get mailers and websites and posters. The question is what should be limited?

  12. - Team Sleep - Thursday, Mar 29, 07 @ 4:48 pm:

    Ah, my favorite issue.

    After working on a large-scale campaign last year, I can attest that it takes a ton of money to run a campaign. Media buys, staff salaries, mailers, fundraising costs and reimbursements/supplies are out-of-control. People pump the money in because they want access and a say in everything politics has to offer. Period. Is that a jaded statement? Yes, but I believe it to be true. I also believe that a lot of people in politics are awful to deal with and are only out for themselves. When you make a career out of selling BS as the truth, where is the realness or even the morals? If it’s supposed to be about the candidate and the process, I sure have been fooled!

    But I also think that Cindi Canary and her crew are just as bad. They have to get their funding somewhere and they are probably beholden to interests as well. Cindi is full of it.

    Cermak, you’re full of it, too. A lot of politicians never listen to their constituents and still get elected. I won’t name names because I hate it when Rich deletes my posts!

    And Illinois is just as much of a cesspool as D.C. They are both too hot in the summer and stink when session is taking place.

  13. - Southern Man - Thursday, Mar 29, 07 @ 6:30 pm:


    good point on the absence of a shame factor in Illinois.

  14. - steve schnorf - Thursday, Mar 29, 07 @ 9:09 pm:

    Rich et al,

    I don’t think the absence of a shame factor is the problem at all. I advocate the proposition that the citizens, by defintion, get exactly the goverment they want, or at least a government not sufficiently worse than they want to justify registering and/or voting. Politicians would get with the program very quickly if they thought it influenced votes.

    It’s like the tree falling in the empty forest; nobody hears. Campaign disclosure works fine, though it obviously could be tweaked and improved. But, to what purpose. No one is listening.

    The goo-goos,angry that most of the populace don’t agree with them (sufficiently) to take the action they want, become the nags that shriek constantly about the problem of “corruption” and no one really cares except the media.

    You know what the immortal Pogo said.

  15. - Squideshi - Friday, Mar 30, 07 @ 11:37 am:

    The Illinois Green Party supports full public financing of public election campaigns. The voters’ right to be informed about all candidates running is part of the infrastructure of our democracy, just like the printing of ballots, renting of polling places, and hiring of election judges.

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