Wednesday, July 25, 2012

More campaign finance silliness

Yes, it is a fact of political life that campaigns have to snipe at each other with accusations of political malpractice, of filing the required forms incorrectly, of failing to make the disclosures on yard signs large enough (hint: you still can’t read them from your car as you drive by even when they are the specified size), etc., etc. They have to -- it’s in the official “Campaign Operatives Handbook."

This sort of thing is why summer is called the “silly season” in political campaigns. The sad thing for the public is that as campaigns become interminable, the silly season gets longer and sillier.

Matt Gouras’s AP piece on the Montana GOP lawsuit against AG Steve Bullock lets us know just how turned around things can get during the silly season. It turns out that Bullock was raising money for an “unspecified office” for a long time (still deciding whether to run again for AG or to run for governor.) In fact his website allowed donors to give up to $1200 for 3 months prior to having declared for the governor’s race.

The significance there is that Bullock hadn’t declared for the governor’s race, and could reasonably be assumed to be seeking reelection as AG -- but $1200 is a gubernatorial campaign contribution limit and well above the amount allowed for contributions to an AG campaign. The numbers in the AP story aren’t quite self-explanatory -- the max donation this year for the governor’s race is only $630, which would translate into $1260 only if a candidate successfully wins the primary and can accept another $630 for the general election.

The Montana Commissioner of Political Practices already ruled against the protest, but the Montana GOP has taken the case to court. They have a point -- Dave Gallik, who was Commissioner at the time that the GOP filed their complaint with that office, was a contributor to Bullock’s AG campaign and can reasonably be assumed not to have been an unbiased participant. Adding to the difficulty of weeding this particular garden is the fact that the judges in Helena all know Bullock (Helena is a small town -- no surprise there), and so the case had to be moved to Lewistown, where Judge Wayne Phillips will hear the case.

As to things being turned on their head, Gouras points this out:

Bullock, who has fought in the other lawsuits for more transparency as he seeks to preserve Montana’s campaign finance laws, has argued he did not need to disclose which office he was seeking last year while he was raising hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Indeed, we have had to endure Bullock’s stentorian and moralizing pronouncements on electoral transparency, and now, he claims that the GOP protest has no validity. Silly.

Less convincingly, Gouras intimates that the GOP is also being hypocritical, since "Montana Republican Party attorney Jim Brown has argued in federal court that many Montana campaign finance laws are onerous and unconstitutional.” True enough, but the point that the Montana GOP has made in the past is that campaign finance rules are onerous and cumbersome. In this case, however, they are saying that if we are going to have these onerous rules on the books, then everyone needs to be held to the same standard.

Think of it like this: I often challenge my liberal friends who favor higher taxes to go ahead and pay more in taxes. There is nothing stopping them. You don’t even need to write an extra check. If all Democrats who want higher taxes simply don't claim the exemptions and deductions allowed to them by law, then presto -- they will all be paying the higher tax rates they say they want and the government will have more of the money they say it desperately needs to spend. After the sputtering ends, the reply usually boils down to this: the fact that they advocate higher tax rates for all doesn’t obligate them to pay more voluntarily in advance of such tax rates going into effect. Fair enough.

The same thing applies here. Just because the GOP believes that certain election laws are onerous doesn’t mean that Republicans are obligated to look the other way when Democrats skirt them. If Bullock and the Democrats believe there is nothing wrong with raising large amounts of money without the basic transparency of saying what you’re running for, they should lead the way to change the law.

As has been pointed out here at MH before, Montana’s contribution limits are antiquated and force candidates to spend inordinate amounts of time raising the amount of money that modern statewide races require. In other words, not only should Bullock (like every other candidate for statewide office) be able to raise money without declaring what office he is running for, he should be able to take in contributions as generous as someone is willing to give him. All of the filing and record-keeping absorb huge amounts of time and energy that candidates could better spend doing other things. Some campaign operatives skilled in such arcana might lose their jobs, but there is plenty of work to be had elsewhere. We hear they’re hiring for all sorts of jobs in the Bakken.

Best of all, we citizens would be spared having to hear the nit-picky campaign finance accusations that both parties dutifully hurl at each other during the interminable silly season.

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