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Harris Sherline: Money Talks

Fixing campaign finance has been a priority since the 1800s. So how come the fix isn't in?

Campaign finance has been a problem in American politics for 140 years, dating back to the Naval Appropriations Bill of 1867.

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In the 1800s, people who wanted a position in government could openly donate to a politician running for office with the understanding that if the candidate won, they would be rewarded with a job. People still contribute their services in the hopes of getting a job in the administration of the candidate they support. So, what’s changed?

Since 1867, according to the Hoover Institution, 15 federal laws have been adopted in an effort to regulate the flow of money to politicians from private interests, and presumably to level the playing field for candidates:

• 1867: The Naval Appropriations Bill “prohibited officers and employees of the government from soliciting money from naval yardworkers.”

• 1883: The Civil Service Reform Act “extended the above rule to all federal civil service worker(s) ...”

• 1905: President Teddy Roosevelt’s message to Congress, in which he proposed that “(a)ll contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose should be forbidden by law.”

• 1907: The Tillman Act “prohibited corporations and nationally chartered (interstate) banks from making direct financial contributions to federal candidates.”

• 1910-11: The Federal Corrupt Practices Act established disclosure requirements for House and Senate candidates.

• 1925: The Federal Corrupt Practices Act (Revised)

• 1940: Hatch Act Amendments “set limits if $5,000 per year on individual contributions to a federal candidate or political committee …”

• 1943: The Smith-Connally Act “extended to unions the prohibition on contributions to federal candidates from corporations and interstate banks …”

• 1944: The “first political action committee (PAC) was formed by Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) … to raise money for re-election of” President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

• 1947: The Taft-Hartley Act “made permanent the ban on contributions to federal candidates from unions, corporations and interstate banks …”

• 1967: House Campaign Financial Reports (were) collected for (the) first time.

• 1971: The Federal Election Campaign Act: “… created (a) comprehensive framework for regulation of federal campaign financing of primaries, runoffs, general elections and conventions.”

• 1971: The Revenue Act “created public campaign fund for eligible presidential candidates …”

• 1974: FECA Amendments (Post-Watergate) “provided (the) option of full public financing for presidential general elections, matching funds for presidential primaries, and public funds for presidential nominating conventions. Set spending limits for presidential primaries and general elections, and for House and Senate primaries.”

• 1976: Buckley vs. Aleo challenged restrictions in FECA as unconstitutional violations of free speech …

• 1979 : FECA Amendments “increased amount volunteers could contribute in-kind (use of home, food, vehicle) from $500 to $1,000. Raised threshold for reporting contributions …”

• 2002: The most recent effort to reform campaign finance is the McCain-Feingold bill, named for “its primary sponsors, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis.,” which bans soft money — “unlimited contributions to the national political parties for ‘party-building’ activities.” (What’s The Issue?, Jan. 19, 2005).

Other provisions of the bill ban “ads within 60 days of a general election that are paid for by outside groups and identify a particular candidate.  Additionally, the legislation requires groups spending more than $10,000 a year on TV ads to disclose who paid for them.”

It’s obvious that the failure to regulate campaign finance certainly is not for lack of trying. The theory generally seems to have been that if we could just get money out of the equation, the political process would somehow eliminate corruption and favoritism.  But, I submit that’s just wishful thinking, because it’s counter to human nature.  People invariably look for loopholes in such laws, which are generally circumvented almost as fast as they are put on the books.

Dating back to Teddy Roosevelt, the most popular response to the inherent weaknesses in campaign finance legislation has been the notion that the process should be financed by the federal government.

However, I don’t see how that would be much different than the present situation.  The administration of a government-financed system would undoubtedly become as convoluted and ineffective as the one we have now, the primary difference being who would be in control.  With the government financing and running things, it’s bound to become more bureaucratic, but would still be subject to political influence, just with different players.

One alternative is to simply require that all political contributions be immediately disclosed to the public on the Internet, including the sources of the money, so everyone could see who is supporting and financing the various candidates.

As usual, when it comes to regulating behavior, there are no easy answers.

Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his own blog, Opinionfest.com.

 

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