The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision allowing more corporate spending on elections has generated a great deal of attention.
In Congress, politicians (who fill their own coffers with corporate dollars) feign indignation: They are shocked — shocked! — that tainted money is influencing elections. To fix it, they propose a set of “reforms” to clean up campaign spending once and for all.
Yet back home in Colorado, outside money has dominated campaigns since 2002, when a campaign finance “reform” initiative called Amendment 27 was passed. That measure — which promised, verbatim, to “get big money out of politics” — limited the amounts candidates and parties could raise and spend.
That’s when the law of unintended consequences kicked in.
Beginning in 2004, the first election cycle after Amendment 27 went into effect, political money disproportionately began to find its way into nonprofit organizations called 501(c)(3)s, 501(c)(4)s and 527s. While voters had clear visibility to the money raised by candidates, the source of funds for these nonprofits is harder to find, if it can be found at all.
These groups — with names that typically sound something like “Coloradans for All Good Things” — play a major role in political advertisements you see on TV and hear on the radio.
In 2006, Rocky Mountain News reporter Burt Hubbard documented how spending has migrated from candidates to outside groups. He wrote that “Democratic and Republican independent groups poured $1.23 million into four key Senate races in just 25 days. That is almost double what the eight candidates for the four seats spent during their entire campaigns combined.”
In the state House, “Republican and Democratic 527 committees spent about $1.5 million in the first 25 days in October on 11 key state House races. That’s one-and-a-half times what the candidates spent combined during their entire campaigns.”
In other words, the message heard by voters wasn’t coming from candidates — it was coming from groups that, by law, can’t have any contact with candidates. And because those groups aren’t accountable to voters, their messages tend to be more negative than anything a candidate would dare say.
Is this any way to run a democracy?
Lest we run into the arms of another so-called campaign finance “reform” measure, recall that it was “reform” like McCain-Feingold and Amendment 27 that got us here in the first place. The reality is that complex rules do not prevent the flow of money into campaigns; they only ensure that people wealthy enough to hire lawyers and accountants are the only ones who can figure out how to get cash through the maze.
To date, “reforms” have just made things worse. We have more money in politics, and less transparency, than ever before.
Let’s hope the latest “reform” proposal in Congress doesn’t exacerbate the problem. But if history is at all instructive, there’s ample cause to be worried.
Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the upcoming book, “The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care).”