Monday, December 22, 2008

The Naughty and Nice of Campaign Cash


By Damon Circosta

As the election fades and the holiday season is upon us, our collective attention shifts away from campaigns and towards more festive matters. But before we put a bow around this past campaign season, let us take a look back at some of the issues surrounding money and politics in 2008.

I don’t know if Santa takes into account campaign finance reports when he makes his list of who has been naughty and who has been nice, but maybe he should. If he did, he might not be climbing down as many chimneys. Sure, the folks who got elected have the opportunity to bring good tidings of great joy when they take office, but the process by which money enters the political system is still more pernicious than stale fruitcake.

Political fundraising broke records this year. Some of this can be attributed to the influx of small donors and the rise of Internet-driven fundraising appeals. And while small donations from everyday citizens is generally a good sign of a healthy democracy, the specter of elected offices being bought and paid for by large contributors still blankets our democracy not unlike a winter blizzard.

Why does this matter? Historically, it is the large donors who are successful at lobbying government officials for special favors. Money buys access and wealthy donors are not giving money to campaigns in the holiday spirit of generosity.

Small donors, on the other hand, are less likely to lobby for a narrow policy interest. The CFI report also acknowledges that large donors are more likely than small donors to give campaign contributions in the interest of advancing their own narrow concerns, as distinct from a more general concern.

The strings that come attached to big campaign contributions isn’t just a Washington, D.C. problem. Right here in North Carolina, those who wish to curry favor with officeholders often contribute the lion’s share to political campaigns.

Take for instance the races for Council of State, the statewide executive offices charged with regulating particular industries. There are plenty of able and capable candidates who run, but they often face the same predicament that the residents of Whoville encountered in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

Much like the Whos who were constantly worried about the Grinch parting with their gifts, Council of State candidates find it almost impossible to run without the political gifts that come from regulated industries. It makes for a rotten system and one that needs changing.

This last year a select number of Council of State races were run under a public financing program. The program permitted candidates to run without having to constantly worry if the Grinches in the industries they regulate would take away their campaign funding. It’s a good idea and one that should be expanded to all Council of State races. This change wouldn’t suddenly make all of the challenges our government faces magically disappear, but it will make our elections more about the people and less about the big donors.

The campaign season is over and with it discussion about campaign reform tends to take a backseat. But this holiday season let us not just pack up reform ideas like old holiday decorations. As we move to the New Year, let’s continue to think about ways of improving our elections. Reform, like the best of holiday offerings, is the gift that keeps on giving.
Circosta is the director of policy with the N.C. Center for Voter Education, a Raleigh-based nonprofit and nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving elections in North Carolina.
Copyright (C) 2008 by the North Carolina Editorial Forum. 12/08