Campaign finance

When it comes to the nuts and bolts of the political process, fewer issues matter more than the often tortured subject of campaign finance.

Increasingly, and yes, even in Vermont, money and politics go hand-in-hand.

The state where George Aiken, in 1964, spent $19.05 to win re-election to the U.S. Senate is now, in its own way, joining other larger states where the cost of getting elected - and then re-elected - is no simple matter.

Even before the U.S. Supreme Court threw what few limits existed on political fundraising out the window in its misguided Citizens United decision in 2010, the role of money in politics had gotten completely out of hand. Today, so-called "Super-PAC's" - political action committees - face few limits on how much they can raise and then funnel to candidates of their choice. Both sides do it. It's a national disgrace.

While it's impossible to tell how much influence such political contributions buy once a candidate is in office, common sense tells you that if XYZ Corp, or some other special interest group (like a labor union) dangles the big bucks before a Senate or Congressional candidate, or for that matter a state representative or senator, it's going to be tough for that person, if elected, to vote against the donor's preferences. That's just as true in Montpelier as it is in Washington D.C. The cost of electioneering is simply too large to ignore such contributors without severe blowback.

Last week in Montpelier, we got a chance to watch the state legislature twist itself into knots over the issue. Vermont has been without a formal campaign financing law ever since the Supreme Court, in 2006, threw out an earlier statute, passed in 1997, as unconstitutional. In an effort to fix that vacuum, state lawmakers came up with a bill, quietly signed into law by Gov. Shumlin last month, that significantly increases the limits on political donations for candidates and political action committees. Under the new law, the cap for a "single source" donation - be it an individual or another entity - will rise from $2,000 to $10,000, for example. The maximum contribution from the same entity or individual to candidates or parties is now $40,000.

Enter Rep. Cynthia Browning, our local rep from Manchester, Arlington, Sunderland and Sandgate, who took advantage of a drafting error which forced a re-vote on the House floor and presented her with an opportunity to try to amend the statute. If passed, her amendment would have raised the amounts candidates could have received from political parties, and lowered the amounts political parties could have received from a single source. Not perfect either perhaps, but something of an improvement.

Her effort in the end proved unsuccessful, but deserves kudos for trying and bringing attention to the subject. Campaign finance restrictions are especially problematic for independent candidates, who face an uphill battle from the outset without the machinery of a political party to help underwrite their vote-getting efforts.

If we were starting from scratch, what kind of rules around campaign and political contributions might make sense? A balance must be struck between the right of individuals and other entities to free expression and the interests of the broad mass of the electorate, most of whom choose not to make political contributions, even small ones.

Just because you don't see fit to donate $10, $20 or $100 to a candidate you might like shouldn't mean that candidate needs to go begging to deeper-pocketed entities who have a lot to gain or lose depending on legislative outcomes. Most politicians, we venture to think, would love to opt out of the political fundraising circus - it's demeaning, time consuming and compromising. Which makes the case, we believe, for public financing of political campaigns, based on a dollar amount per voter. Maybe it's $1 per voter, or $5 or $10, when you tally up the cost of advertising and campaigning expenses for staff, travel and the like. In different states, there might be different limits. If private individuals or other entities wanted to give more, they could, up to a maximum amount that is so small that no politician could say they couldn't get by without it. One hundred dollars or so sounds about right. There's your right to free expression, but not so much that you overwhelm the balance.

The hard part, of course, is crafting language that meets the test of the Court's Citizens United decision, or can survive the inevitable lawsuit that would follow in its wake. We don't know if this does, but until that decision is overturned, the likelihood of meaningful reform is limited.

Vermont is better off with some law on campaign finance than none at all - Gov. Shumlin's main argument for signing the bill into law - but far more could and should be done.

It's worth noting that the candidate with the most money or biggest war chest doesn't always win. Recent history, here in Vermont and across the country, is filled with examples of well-financed candidates who were unsuccessful. But it's hard to deny it doesn't confer an advantage.

The role of money in politics is pernicious and out of control. It's time to craft an election environment that doesn't discourage political novices from throwing their hats in the rings, and once in office, to be insulated from corporate, labor union and other special interests from influencing their voting.


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