One of the sad-but-true lines about politics that resonates with me is: “If you are not cynical, you are not paying close enough attention.”
I thought of that last week when I read Bill Glahn’s article about apparent loopholes in the campaign finance law enforcement in our state. It is well worth a read at billglahn.blogspot.com.
Bill did something interesting. He decided to take a look at the biggest political spender in the last election cycle, Minnesotans United for All Families. They were the group that led the very successful charge to defeat the Marriage Amendment, raising and spending over $12 million to do so. As a successful political operation, they should become a case study — they took a sure loser of an issue and won convincingly, and almost surely helped the Democrats take back the House and Senate.
What was most interesting to Glahn, though, was the fact that they were able to do so without even making much of an effort to obey the campaign finance laws. In fact, they apparently were a temporary, disposable group to aggregate and spend money, and once they won they quietly shut down their shop and zeroed out the cash, leaving information about hundreds of donors unreported to the state, as required by law.
Typically, any campaign or committee has some trouble getting every donor’s complete information. Usually, at the end of an election cycle, you will find campaign reports with a few (between zero and, say, 15 out of hundreds, where the campaign hasn’t been able to track down the required information) blank spots. Within a few months those spots are filled in, as the overstretched volunteers clear the chaos.
But Minnesotans United for All Families wasn’t typical. Despite the fact that they were the largest and most professional political organization in Minnesota last election cycle, they apparently didn’t make much of an attempt to follow the rules. They failed to report information on nearly 700 donors who contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to their campaign.
That is, by any standard, an egregious breach of the law, which provides for fines and penalties for failure to comply. (Full disclosure: I once screwed up on a campaign finance issue and wound up paying a fairly hefty fine, uncomfortably close to the amount I had raised, causing me real financial pain.)
It’s been more than a year since the campaign wrapped up, and as far as I can tell, the issue isn’t even a matter of public discussion, much less regulatory action. Minnesotans United for All Families, it seems, didn’t have to play by the rules because they were smart enough to be very temporary.
Only as a legal entity, though. Minnesotans United is back as a Political Action Committee, with a new legal structure, but the same old tactics. According to Glahn’s research, “in the Minnesotans United PAC’s 2013 filing, you need reach only page 3 before finding a donor with missing employment information. By my count, the PAC is missing employment information for 81 donors representing $98,660 in donations.”
That is remarkable because it is so brazen, and notable because the proponents of campaign finance laws seem conspicuously indifferent to their failure to comply with the law.
I long ago came to the conclusion that campaign finance laws are designed to deter average people from getting involved in politics. They are convoluted, confusing, difficult to comply with, and expensive because they require lawyers to interpret correctly. There is a bureaucracy to deal with, and as we have learned recently, that bureaucracy is arbitrary and incompetent. An excellent series of stories by the StarTribune’s Rachel Stassen-Berger recently revealed that the Board’s records were completely messed up, and $26 million in campaign spending was accounted for incorrectly.
Little guys are intimidated by the obstacles and effort; big players learn how to game the system.
Minnesotans United for All Families were very big guys, and worked the system brilliantly. They raised an enormous amount of money from around the country, spent it on a professional staff and great advertising, and once they won, they closed up shop and left behind a mess for which nobody is apparently responsible. Now they are on the “rinse, repeat” part of the cycle, where apparently they plan to do it again.
And, as far as I can tell, neither the authorities in charge of enforcing the laws, nor the “idealists” such as the Humphrey Institute’s Larry Jacobs, appear to care much about the violations of their beloved laws. Perhaps because the results suit them?
Every time I think of campaign finance reform proposals, I think of the Federalist Papers. They were written to persuade people that the Constitution should be ratified, and are today one of the definitive guides to the interpretation of the Constitution’s meaning. Today, we know the authors — but at the time they written under pseudonyms to ensure people read them for their content, not in light of their authors.
Today, they might possibly violate “campaign finance” laws.
The system is broken, and every time we try to fix it, it gets worse. Indisputably our politics today are more awash in money than before those laws were passed, and in many ways the system is more corrupt and dispiriting to the average person. Trust in government is down dramatically, not up, since we have tried to “clean up” the campaign finance system.
And why not? We have created a world in which only the richest and most powerful can have serious influence. As the Minnesotans United for All Families case shows, if you are wealthy enough and crafty enough, you can flout the rules and walk away — and then do it again.
David Strom is a senior policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment.