Government
5:30 am
Thu August 2, 2012

Campaign Contribution Limits: Big Donors Find A Way

A national study of risk of corruption by the Center for Public Integrity docks Missouri for being one of only four states without any limits on campaign contributions.

Most Missouri Democrats say the state needs to restore the limits to avoid having candidates beholden to special interest groups. Most Republicans oppose them, saying requiring disclosure of how much people are giving to candidates' committees is a better approach.

Though he tends to favor campaign contribution limits, Missouri State University political science professor George Connor says the debate may place too much emphasis on them. “Campaign limits by themselves aren't the answer because there are states where they don't need campaign limits,” he says.

As an example, Connor cites North Dakota, which still has no contribution limits, but according to the professor has never had an unusual amount of corruption. He concedes that USA Today cited North Dakotans as high in convictions for corruption, but critics of that study have noted that the numbers are based on per capita convictions. And that can make a sparsely populated state look worse than if simply raw numbers are compared.

"There's been a Pandora's box opened up with respect to spending."

Connor says that North Dakota and several states in the upper Midwest have a very public-spirited approach to government. On the other hand, he says Missouri has a different political culture, placing much more emphasis on “what's in it for me.” both in terms of individuals and interest groups. He says disclosure alone is not sufficient protection in that political climate, and that Missouri legislators who voted for that approach knew it wasn't.

“When they passed the campaign finance law with no limits they knew full well the average Missouri voter was not going to access that information.” Though the information is available on the Missouri Ethics Commission's web site, searching for how much a particular campaign has collected from big donors can be a time-consuming process.

Connor believes the ethics commission has done the best job possible, considering the size of its staff. But he thinks voters would be appalled if they did take time to search the site. There are single-source candidate contributions of up to $750,000 before the state primary.

He notes that former House Speaker Bob Griffin says a money culture of “almost anything goes” in Jefferson City contributed to his 1998 conviction on federal corruption charges. Connor doesn't think that either campaign contribution limits or transparency of reporting changed that culture very much.

Several weeks ago, in a KCUR interview, Kansas City Star columnist Steve Kraske commented that the lack of campaign contribution limits gives Missouri elections a “wild, wild west” atmosphere. Across the state line in Kansas, which does have contribution limits, KU professor Burdett Loomis says as of 2010, the “wild, wild west got a lot larger."

"When they passed the campaign finance law with no limits, they knew full well the average Missouri voter was not going to access that information."

Loomis says the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United essentially eliminated effective limits on contributions in United States politics. Now, he says, the entire country is the political “wild west.”

The Supreme Court's decision does not invalidate state limits on contributions to official candidate committees, but it does mean corporations and unions can donate unlimited amounts to other groups that directly advocate the election of candidates. That, Loomis says, helps allow candidates' official committees to play nice while other organizations get dirty.

He is concerned about the effect of what at the onset some people said was good for democracy. “This total notion that more speech is good and more money means more speech – and you look at the content of some of these ads.... more negative... let the outside groups do all the heavy lifting on the negative side.”

Loomis notes that conservative national groups like Americans for Prosperity are now for the first time getting involved in primary races for Kansas Legislature seats. The most heated contests right now are certainly in these Republican primaries. He says that's because in mostly Republican Kansas, conservatives are trying to end moderates' control of the state Senate.

Loomis adds that many of the “attack” ads running prior to the primary do not require donor disclosure because they are not officially affiliated with the candidate being supported. Furthermore, he says, in a largely rural state like Kansas, there is a heavy reliance on hard-to-track media like direct mail in non-metropolitan areas.

“Undecided people, people who haven't really paid all that much attention to their state senator, all of a sudden are hearing all these awful things about him or her,” says Loomis, “and... it's hard to fight that.”

George Connor says to his knowledge the big national groups haven't gotten involved in Missouri legislature races yet, but are definitely a factor in Missouri aces for Congress, the U.S. Senate and governor. “There's been a Pandora's box opened up with respect to spending,” he comments.

But Connor adds that the lid on Pandora's box was always a bit ajar – that negative campaigning and money have been a part of American Politics since the days of George Washington and John Adams.

He quotes an old maxim in politics: “...that money is like water – the money will find its way to the candidates. Now, some people are arguing that transparency is the way to solve that problem. I don't think that's necessarily true because – I think water also finds a way to go underground.”