Missouri Bill Goes a Long Way -- in the Wrong Direction

A bill to repeal contribution limits in Missouri would be a step backwards for campaign finance reform.

June 1, 2006

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
June 1, 2006

Missouri Bill Goes a Long Way—in the Wrong Direction
By Richard Reuben and Seema Shah

In 2004, candidates for the Missouri Legislature raised more than $18 million for their election campaigns. Political party committees were at the head of the list of the top ten contributing industries during that election cycle.

Even though individuals and special interest groups are restricted in the amount that they may give to state candidates, there are no limits on
contributions to political party committees. On top of that, political party committees can transfer unrestricted amounts of money to other committees and then are permitted to give almost ten times the individual limit directly to the candidates. In many cases, individuals donate the maximum permitted amount to the candidate and then give vast additional sums to parties, which funnel those amounts to the candidate.

On May 11, the Legislature passed an ethics reform bill that does little to reduce the flow of special interest money going to candidates. Instead, the bill simply redirects the unlimited sums away from party committees and to the candidates themselves. Although the bill bans monetary contributions from political party committees to candidates, it repeals limits on contribution from individuals to candidates.

Under the new law, in other words, an individual no longer will have to funnel cash through political parties; he simply can give20unrestricted sums directly to the candidates.

More alarming is that supporters of the bill seem to believe that giving in to the dominance of special interests is the only option. In fact, Sen. Tim Green, D-Spanish Lake, who suggested removing the limits, argued that “[The influence of special interests] is completely wrong and it’s sick. . . . But we can’t stop it, so why don’t we let the people know who’s shuffling the money in?”

Granted, disclosure requirements inform the public about “who’s shuffling the money in.” That’s a necessary first step in campaign finance reform, and the bill includes a commendable provision that lobbyists report the names of individual legislators who receive free meals or gifts. The new law also would require that disclosure reports be electronically filed, broadening public access to this information.

But an effective campaign finance system requires more. Contribution limits are a basic way to reduce the risk of real and perceived corruption. They preclude candidates from relying on a few wealthy donors and force candidates to interact with larger numbers of voters, thus maintaining the crucial link between representatives and the electorate.

Missouri legislators have no reason to throw up their hands in defeat. Across the country, many variants of campaign finance reform have proven successful. A more serious effort to curtail special interest influence would include public financing, whereby candidates receive public subsidies to fund their campaigns and are less dependent on wealthy donors. Such systems are working right now in Maine and Arizona to combat corruption and level the playing field.

At the very least, however, disclosure laws and contribution limits are both necessary parts of a strong campaign finance system. One without the other does little to promote ethical campaigning and public legitimacy.

Missouri could follow the lead of the 22 other states and the federal government, all of which restrict the amount of money individual donors can give to party committees. It could also lower the cap on political party committee contributions to candidates.

Both the public and previous administrations in Missouri have recognized the value of contribution limits. Twelve years ago, a voter initiative calling for limits passed with an overwhelming 77 percent of the vote in a clear demand for more accountable government. Missouri late went all the way to the Supreme Court to defend its contribution limits, and the high court ruled in 2000 that they are constitutional.

In stark contrast, the public had almost no opportunity to weigh in on the current bill. A conference committee was assigned the task of negotiating a final version of the legislation between the House and Senate versions, but the committee never met. The House did20not even debate the repeal of the contribution limits until the second-to-last day of the legislative session.20

The Missouri Legislature has a long way to go to enact real ethics reform, but remembering the public’s call for contribution limits is an essential first step.

Richard Reuben is an associate professor of law at University of Missouri-at Columbia School of Law. Seema Shah is a research associate in the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.