Getting away with performance enhancing acts in politics
April 29, 2008
How are independent expenditure committees like athletes on performance enhancing drugs like steroids?
No matter what rules anyone adopts, no matter what tests scientists develop, the perpetrators in both areas will somehow figure out ways to stay ahead of the laws and/or the tests.
That’s abundantly clear when apparently transcendent athletes like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Andy Pettitte and Paul LoDuca, all named in official reports or convicted of using steroids, the “clear,” the “cream,” human growth hormone or other performance enhancers, somehow never fail a publicly-revealed drug test.
Things are similar in California politics, where so-called “independent expenditure” committees will finance more than half the political advertising voters see as the June 3 primary election nears. Since 2000, says the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), these committees have given more than $88 million to candidates for state offices.
None of that spending ran afoul of any state law, despite formal rules that limit donations to a candidate from any one individual to $24,000 or less in any state race ” with the top figure applying only to runs for governor. Candidates for lesser offices can’t receive anywhere near that much.
But the money given by outfits like “Californians for a Better Government” and the “Alliance for a Better California” and “JOBS PAC” and the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. Independent Expenditure Committee ” each spending well over $3 million since 2000 ” doesn’t go to candidates. Rather, it is spent to promote candidates, but allegedly without them having any control over it.
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This is all perfectly legal, protected by constitutional guarantees of free speech.
But it still needs to be regulated. For every time the voters try to stanch the flow of big money to candidates who might be corrupted by it, big donors figure out a new way around the regulations.
Even if big donations can’t be stopped, it’s vital that voters at least know who is paying for each message they see or hear. That might give them some indications about who is beholden to whom and who is trying to punish whom.
A classic example of punishment came just two years ago, when Alex Padilla, then president of the Los Angeles City Council, sought and won a state Senate seat over Cindy Montanez, a Democratic state assemblywoman then on the verge of being termed out.
The year before, Montanez sponsored a car buyers’ bill of rights aiming to give consumers two full days to return any used car. Car dealers didn’t like that and spent $122,000 to promote Padilla, who won the Democratic nomination and was easily elected that fall in a safe Democratic district.
Now all state legislators know the car dealers will retaliate against anyone who seeks to protect customers. So nothing like the Montanez proposal will become law anytime soon. Money talks.
But if voters in that district had known car dealers were behind the ads for Padilla,
and why, there’s at least the possibility they might have voted differently.
How to provide that information? The top two donors to any independent expenditure committee are already named in all TV and radio commercials, but only as a fast-talk tagline at the very end of each spot. Their identity is also limited to small print on TV screens and in newspaper ads. But a law that requires the top donors to be identified in print equal to the largest used elsewhere in the ad would not infringe on anyone’s free speech. It would assure that voters could plainly see who’s behind what.
Says Derek Cressman, government watchdog director of the good-government lobby Common Cause, “Because big money independent expenditures unduly influence election outcomes, they also inevitably influence the legislative process. Legislators can determine whose support they owe their election to.”
Big money independent committees also can distort elections by determining who runs and who doesn’t. Cressman, in testimony before the FPPC, noted that a $1 million deposit to an independent expenditure committee by Silicon Valley mogul and former state Board of Education member Reed Hastings, founder of the Netflix
DVD service, has by itself made current state School Supt. Jack O’Connell a credible 2010 candidate for governor. That’s about 43 times what Hastings could legally contribute to O’Connell’s own campaign committee.
“It is conceivable that without this support from one individual, Mr. O’Connell would not even run in the first place,” Cressman said.
The bottom line: When big money interests can skirt the law to decide who becomes a candidate at the same time they are determining many election outcomes, today’s campaign donations limits become meaningless. Some method ” large type or maybe something better ” must be devised to at least let voters know who’s behind what and whom, or special interests and the very wealthy can simply take over the entire political process. If they haven’t already.
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