When advocates of clean government talk about how to clean up the pervasive corruption in Illinois, they start with the state's campaign finance laws—or the lack of them. Illinois has few rules on how political campaigns are funded, making it what critics call "the Wild West of campaign finance."
Corruption and minimal regulation have coexisted for a long time here. Rod Blagojevich raised a gaudy $29 million in his 2006 re-election, much of it from people doing business with the state.
The legislature finally dealt with that late last year, approving a law that makes it illegal for businesses that seek state contracts of $50,000 or more to make campaign contributions to the officeholder who would award the contract. (And to candidates for that office.) That's a sound, limited law specifically targeted at pay-to-play politics. We supported it, and we'd like to see it extended to other people in office.
We want to talk today about other ideas to regulate campaign finances. We want to be realistic about expectations.
We're not confident that broad limits on campaign contributions would eliminate the trading of money for influence. If we have learned anything from federal campaign law, it's that such reforms almost always fall short—and often have malignant unintended results. This experience is an argument for humility and restraint in addressing the issue.
The Illinois Reform Commission has some ideas that are bound to help.
•The most important is to give the public good, quick information about who is giving and who is getting. The IRC says statewide campaigns should have to report any donation of $1,000 or more within five business days. Currently, candidates have up to six months to report (except in the 30 days before an election, when they have two days).
Political committees that collect contributions and pass them on to candidates, a practice known as "bundling," would also have to file such information within five days.
How about an even shorter deadline? With electronic record-keeping, a donation should be posted within one working day.
But anything that speeds disclosure—let's call it campaign exposure—would make the whole process more transparent, allowing voters to judge whether a candidate is putting himself in debt to powerful individuals and interest groups.
•The State Board of Elections has been notoriously weak about imposing penalties on people who break the laws. Small monetary fines imposed months or years after an election become nothing but a modest cost of doing dishonest business.
Want to stop candidates from breaking the rules? Fine the heck out of them. If a candidate is a flagrant or repeat offender, the board should disqualify the candidate from office. Now that would be a deterrent.
The IRC also favors putting caps on contributions—$2,400 per individual per election, the same limit imposed in federal elections, and $50,000 for state party committees. But there isn't much reason to think these will make a great difference. The problem with contribution limits is that people who want to buy influence find ways around the limits.
Political action committees, which solicit donations and then give to favored candidates, proliferated because of the limits imposed on individuals in the 1974 post-Watergate federal reforms. Wealthy individuals who once might have given large sums to politicians who share their views could no longer do so—leading some of them to use their wealth to run themselves.
Other rich people determined to help or hurt particular candidates buy newspaper ads or TV spots to appeal to voters directly—an exercise in free speech that the Supreme Court says may not be prohibited or restricted. In 1984, a California real estate developer unhappy with Sen. Charles Percy's views on the Middle East spent $1.1 million on his own in an effort that helped to defeat Percy.
Donation caps won't stop corrupt donors and politicians from finding mutually agreeable arrangements. A candidate who can be bought with a generous campaign contribution can also be bought with a generous independent expenditure on his behalf.
Such limits also have a destructive effect: making it harder for candidates to raise money and forcing them to spend more time doing it. Perpetual fundraising is now an inescapable fact of life for members of Congress. It deters some very good people from even trying to run.
If the General Assembly puts a ceiling on contributions, it should make it a high one—say, $10,000 instead of $2,400. That would make it easier for candidates to come up with the cash they need to compete (particularly against incumbents) without appreciably increasing the risk of corruption. Even the cheapest politician isn't likely to be for sale at that low price.
Any limits on personal donations should be accompanied by a limit on contributions from committees run by leaders in the General Assembly—who now collect money and dole it out to candidates in order to enforce obedience among rank-and-file members.
There is no substitute for an informed, alert electorate that is willing to vote against politicians who abuse their position to advance their own interests at the expense of the public. By 2006, Blagojevich was already known to be under federal investigation. Yet fewer than half of Illinoisans eligible to vote bothered to go to the polls—and those who did vote gave him another term despite his unsavory reputation.
Better information promises to help citizens who are determined to drain the swamp of corruption that has made Illinois famous. But in the end, politicians will only be as honest as voters demand.
So let's demand it.