Campaign finance in a new gilded age
The editor of the Nevada Independent, Jon Ralston, has been blasting state legislative Democrats who are running unopposed this campaign season for holding fundraising receptions to build their campaign war chests even though they’ve already won. He has had harsh words for Washoe County Assemblymembers Teresa Benitez-Thompson and Mike Sprinkle, calling their actions “nothing short of legalized extortion” while labeling the system that depends on lobbyists raising money for lawmakers whom they later lobby on behalf of their paying clients as “incestuous and corrupt.”
He’s not wrong. The entire “dialing for dollars” campaign financing system is a major force undermining our democracy. But there are far greater instances of shady double-dealing practices that contribute to the corruption than a few unopposed lawmakers holding fundraisers.
Consider the maximum campaign contribution limits, for example. In Nevada, no one can give a legislative candidate more than $10,000 per campaign cycle. While that’s far more money than an average person can siphon from the family budget for a non-deductible donation, corporate entities that want to give much more than that can easily evade the limit by funneling additional donations through related businesses—limited liability companies are a favorite vehicle—or by giving to political action committees set up for this express purpose. In Nevada, essentially, there is no campaign contribution cap for the wealthy. All they have to do is cut a few more checks, a minor inconvenience, and they can make sure their favored candidates have all the money they need.
Another common way of circumventing the campaign financing rules is to launder money through other officials, which is the justification the unopposed candidates use as a primary reason for their fundraisers. They say raising money for others is a “requirement” to rise in leadership and gain more power. Financially supporting other members of their party is also a way to “buy” loyalty and expand their influence. There’s a reason people say money is the lifeblood of politics.
Of course, this practice is not confined to the state level. The Reno Gazette Journal reported recently that Northern Nevada’s U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei is currently under fire for a suspected “straw donor” arrangement. It seems another GOP Representative gave him a contribution from his campaign account of $4,000 and then a month later Amodei gave the same politician a $3,500 contribution for his now-abandoned gubernatorial race, thus helping him evade campaign financing rules in Ohio while also earning $500 on the deal. Amodei says there’s nothing out of the ordinary here, but when you’ve been entrenched in a corrupt “pay to play” system for decades, as Amodei has, your interpretation of right and wrong may be suspect.
Michael Sandel recently reviewed Robert Reich’s new book, The Common Good, in the New York Times, remarking on Reich’s view that attributes “the erosion of the common good in recent decades to the breakdown of moral restraint in the pursuit of power and money.” Sandel goes on to note that “The unbridled pursuit of power and profit has brought an enormous flow of corporate money into politics. The result is a rigged system that perpetuates inequality, enables economic elites to manipulate the rules of the game to their own advantage, undermines trust in institutions, and promotes attitudes of unrestrained self-seeking in social life generally.”
Let’s face it. Campaign finance reform isn’t going to come from the politicians who keep their offices by raising money from lobbyists and each other instead of earning small donations from the people they are supposed to be serving. Change must come from a constituent rebellion demanding public financing of campaigns. At the very least, we should outlaw the incestuous contributions from one campaign account to another.
Campaign finance reform makes all other reforms possible.