Muftic: Campaign contributions can be corrupting influence
June 22, 2010
There is no doubt about it. Corporate, union, and special interest contributions to our state legislators and members of Congress are a fact of life. It will be that way until we reform campaign finance laws.
Campaign contributions can be a corrupting influence and can affect how votes are cast in Congress or how an administration executes its responsibilities. Campaign contributions can also be a hot issue in an election. They can be used as evidence to condemn a candidate as corrupt.
Challengers can easily paint an opponent guilty by insinuation and get away with it even if the charge lacks a credible connection between a contribution and some vote or future action. The public has become so jaded, they assume that all contributions come with strings, anyway.
The least vulnerable to those tactics s are those who fund their own campaigns, i.e. a Carly Fiorino in California. Ted Kennedy recounted in his autobiography that in a more recent campaign he mortgaged his house so he did not have to bother with fundraising. The most vulnerable are incumbents who have a voting record and years of public disclosures of their campaign finance sources.
Our founding fathers envisioned political bodies that were composed of public service-minded citizens who voted for their states’ interests or for the good of the nation. That changed quickly. Promises of jobs and government contracts were plums handed out by the victor. It took civil service reform, laws regarding competitive bids, and sunshine and freedom of information acts to put somewhat of a lid on what had become accepted practices.
Since the 1980s, political fundraising has become another agent of corruption because of the cost of modern day campaigning. TV ads, robo calls, paid phone banks, and mass mailing . Gone were the days when Ted Kennedy’s grandfather, Boston Mayor Honey Fitz, could shake enough hands and walk in St. Pat’s parade to win votes. Even in a moderately small state, the cost of a winning a statewide political campaign is $10 to $15 million. The winner does not have to raise and spend more than an opponent, but the candidate has to get his/her message to the public without being drowned out by an opponents’ ads. It will be so until we have gotten the money out of campaigns, have publicly funded commercials, and apply reforms to all candidates equally.
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Candidates have harnessed modern communications: fundraising by internet, touting how many small donors from their district or state they have supporting them. Whether millions can be raised from small donors within a single state without corporate, union or other political action committee contributions is a very big question. Even with $10 million in union PAC money and a nationwide internet fundraising effort, Bill Halter failed to knock off incumbent Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas.
Sometimes, candidates who make it a platform plank to refuse to accept PAC money, had reason to believe they would not get those funds anyway. Some base a campaign on their moral superiority of refusing to take PAC money, though they had received special interest funds in prior campaigns.
When campaign donations become the central issue, abuses can happen. Knowing the American public generally assumes there is a direct correlation between a gift given and a thank you expected, it is easy and effective to paint an opponent as “the best legislator money can buy” without drawing a link between a contributor and a voting record or any other evidence. Another campaign tactic is to exaggerate a link, citing one donation comprising a small amount of the total as an “aha; gotcha.”
Voters should look for specific links. The challenger’s challenge is to make that link credible. The attacked candidate’s best defense is to say: “The amount given was not enough to make much difference” or ” look at my voting record. Those special interest contributors must have made a bad investment.”