I’m Shocked, Shocked To See Corporate Checks In Here! (Your Donations, Sir.)

Interesting to see Governor Ralph Northam channeling Claude Rains Monday, choosing the first day of the annual two-day General Assembly campaign finance feeding frenzy to highlight his support for a series of campaign finance proposals.

Campaign fundraising by state legislators and their pooled caucus accounts goes dark with the opening of the regular session today.   The days leading up to the deadline are filled with final receptions, dinners and endless email appeals, a fundraising push similar to the final stage before election day.

“This is the LAST DAY that I can accept any donations until the legislative session ends. There are only hours left before the deadline. Click the Donate button to rush $1 right now, before time runs out,” read a recent email from Democratic Delegate David Toscano.

“We have an emergency ask of you. By law we must shut down our fundraising TOMORROW at NOON,” is the message from the House Republican Caucus (taking the position that the prohibition doesn’t start until the gavel falls at noon.)

 If the schedule followed past years, Senate Democrats had a caucus breakfast event, then the Democratic legislators in both chambers did a joint evening event last night.  On the Republican side the Senate Caucus did a lunch yesterday and House Speaker Kirk Cox held his annual start-of-session bash last night.  Both GOP events have been at the Jefferson and I assume still were.  In between the big parties, small events for individual legislators fill restaurants and lobbyist offices around town.

Amid this environment, when lobbyists are passing out money as fast as their accounting department can process it, the Governor announces his package of ethics proposals, none of which he will abide by unless or until they pass. Got it.  No leading by example here.

One proposal (see the bill here) would place a campaign contribution limit of $10,000 per donor per candidate per campaign cycle.  That amount is way too high and may function to force up the amounts of money now being given.  A more reasonable limit would be $2,500 per cycle for a member of the House of Delegates, and $5,000 for a member or candidate for the State Senate, with perhaps $10,000 the limit for a statewide candidate, state party or a political caucus.

The bill appears to be silent on so-called leadership political action committees – can they get another $10,000 along with the donation to the candidate account?

Placing such a cap on state parties, statewide candidates, etc. (who often get the biggest checks) might have the unintended (or fully intended) consequence of forcing the lobbyists to reshape their budgets, moving more money into direct legislative contributions.  But only a cynic like me would think of that, I’m sure.

The bill on individual contributions imposes the limit per person, so a husband and wife could each give $10,000, as could any other family member above the age of majority.  At ten grand a pop, bundling becomes a very powerful tactic.

And there is this: “D. The limits set forth in this section shall not apply to contributions by (i) the candidate to his own campaign; (ii) the candidate’s spouse, child, parent, or sibling to his campaign; and (iii) a political party committee to the candidate.”  The advantage of personal and family wealth shall not be diminished.

Even in our current environment, $10,000 is serious money, far larger than the typical donation from the typical PAC.  A bundle of $10,000 contributions gets us back where we started.  That’s not a cap.  Try again.

The Governor also rolled out the Usual Leftist Shibboleth about prohibiting corporate and other business contributions, apparently leaving the door open for the kinds of employee-funded political action committees which companies use for federal candidates.   If the federal system’s reporting and restrictions are being imposed on business interests, be sure the same rules apply to the labor unions and issue activist groups who delight in making life miserable for those business interests.

The proposal to ban direct corporate and business contributions to campaigns will be sponsored by Delegate Elizabeth Guzman. To ensure enforcement, the bill also bans corporations and businesses from making direct contributions to their own political action committees. Contributions from individuals would be unaffected by this legislation,” reads the Governor’s news release from January 7.  Guzman’s bill is here and I see no restrictions on labor unions or activist groups.  The level playing field seems elusive.

Meanwhile, Monday, Tuesday and perhaps up till the middle of the day today, the checks change hands, the issue conversations with no reporters or voters in the room fill the hours.  Just how much money was donated, by whom, on what issues, will all have to be sorted out later.  At noon today, the legislators become ethical; it is only later that they become transparent.

Donations of $10,000 or more to non-candidate accounts (such as the caucuses) must be reported rapidly.  Donations made by the end of 2018 are reported January 15.  But donations made after December 31 but before the session are not reported until post session.  A real reform would be for all concerned to voluntarily report in full by Friday every single dollar and every single donor.

In the bad old days, well the even-worse old days, the fundraising receptions for the caucuses were conducted during session.  We carefully scheduled the parties to happen before the crossover deadline, when every bill must be acted on in the chamber where it originates.  Until the General Assembly starts to vote, the lobbyist must continue to wonder – will this money (or lack of it) matter?  At crossover much of suspense disappears.

Imposing the ban, moving the dates of the fundraisers from early February back to early January, really didn’t change a thing expect optics.  Hope springs eternal in every lobbyist’s soul until the subcommittees start the killing.


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11 responses to “I’m Shocked, Shocked To See Corporate Checks In Here! (Your Donations, Sir.)”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    I consider PACs to be de-facto legalized money laundering.

    I support Northams ban and would gladly include employee entities.

    We need to break the two party system and their unholy alliance with those who want to influence with money and as long as truly independent candidates run on an uneven field – we’re going to continue to have this corrupt system where both GOP and DEM care more about what their respective parties think and want and not voters.

  2. There’s no keeping the money out of politics. All these laws do is shape how money finds political expression — through campaign contributions, lobbyist expenditures, advertising, “educational” outreach, research, public relations, organizing, support for new media outlets, etc., etc. Given that reality, the most reasonable thing people can ask for is complete transparency.

    Steve, would the governor’s proposal make the system more transparent or less transparent?

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      I do not see any additional reporting requirements. If the state truly tried to match the requirements for federal elections, with only registered political action committees able to make donations, then suddenly there would be explosion of new PACs registered and reporting at the state level. That arguably would be added transparency. (Right now, we have to go to VPAP to look for a compiled report on businesses and unions, etc.)

      I agree you’ll never get the money out, nor should that really be the goal, but no question big fat checks carry more influence than smaller ones. So enforceable and enforced limits should make a difference.

      1. What a madhouse! “You’ll never get the money out, nor should that really be the goal.” But you certainly make the pitch for more timely transparency. As for those PACs, same timely transparency there for their donors?

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I agree you’ll never get all the money out but if receiving illegal money results exposing the violators and they get jail time it’s will make a difference.

    The “transparency” idea is a joke – especially when a non-govt group relying on donations is the primary “transparency”.

    In my mind, one is either serious about this – or they support it by making excuses… and rationalizing.

    We can make it a LOT tougher. We can’t stop criminals for any crime but we can make it a crime to take money if an elected official – then let the criminal justice system investigators do their thing.

    The ONLY transparency that is truly legitimate is one portal run by the government – and every transaction of any kind is posted – at the moment it occurs – PERIOD. Otherwise all we are doing is agreeing to whatever loopholes can be identified and exploited.

  4. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    “The ONLY transparency that is truly legitimate is one portal run by the government – and every transaction of any kind is posted – at the moment it occurs – PERIOD.”

    Right – lets turn all our reporting and transparency on campaign funding over to Henry the VIII, Louis XIV (Sun King), Napoleon, Adolph Hitler, Mao, Richard Nixon, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Elizabeth Warren, or whoever clown becomes our next President!

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      The Chi Coms I’m sure do a great job with their transparency efforts, Larry. Likewise Vlad the Impaler.

  5. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    In the day of ink and paper, people were dependent on newspapers for information. Hence, it was critical to protect freedom of the press, including whatever editorializing the papers did. For many years, larger cities often had competing papers – a Democratic paper and a Republican one.

    The 20s and 30s brought competition to the news market through radio and radio networks. The late 40s and 50s brought broadcast TV. The 70s and 80s lead us to cable and later satellite TV. With these changes and the Internet, many newspapers folded and market share for broadcast radio and TV declined. Now satellite and cable TV face strong competition from streaming services.

    First Amendment protection has correctly been applied to all of these media entities.

    At the same time, efforts to influence public policy, including to support the election of candidates or the passage or defeat of ballot questions or pending legislation by non-media companies are at least somewhat regulated by election and campaign finance laws. This occurs even though the same efforts when conducted by a media company is unregulated because of the First Amendment. Given the changes in technology and markets, this distinction makes no sense to me.

    For example, advocacy by Jeff Bezos’s newspaper, the Washington Post, is unregulated. But if Amazon or one of its non-media affiliates does the same thing, it’s regulated. What sense does this make? Congress should either repeal the exemption in the campaign finance laws for media companies or allow other corporations the same freedom. Either treat all of this corporate advocacy as a campaign contribution or let it all be free of regulation. Equal protection demands it.

  6. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    It has always seemed to me sort of like the chicken and the egg–do large donors (corporate or otherwise) give to politicians in order to influence them or do they give in order to elect or support those candidates who themselves are supportive of their (donors) interests? From my involvement with the General Assembly over the years (admittedly, I was on the margins), I never thought there was corruption, i.e. the buying of votes. The problem that arises is that folks or organizations who give money or who have lobbyists tend to get direct access to legislators, whether it be visits in their offices or conversations in receptions or at dinners. With that access, they can lay out their positions. Most legislators are not that knowledgeable on many subjects and, having heard only one side, will go with the information they have. Perhaps I am naive or too trusting. If so, Steve, you can enlighten me.

  7. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Dick, all of those advantages can accrue with a scheme of reasonable donation limits. Most donors give reasonable amounts, seeking mainly access and the election of people they know are not hostile to their interests. But the big dollars are often used as levers – right and left. “Lean to the green!” the late great Al Smith used to say, back before that meant environmental interests (now there is green green). More than one legislator back in the day would say to his caucus director (your’s truly) whipping votes, can’t vote that way, so and so back home won’t give me any more money….

    They also are more aware of who donates to their opponents than they are of just about any other set of facts in the universe. They will forget a spouses’s birthday before they forget that list. Nothing is more fascinating (VPAP feeds that fever!).

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Steve’s description of how “big money” donations to politicians influence those politicians is the best description I have read, namely:

      “Most donors give reasonable amounts, seeking mainly access and the election of people they know are not hostile to their interests. But the big dollars are often used as levers – right and left. ‘Lean to the green!’ the late great Al Smith used to say … More than one legislator back in the day would say to his caucus director (your’s truly) whipping votes, can’t vote that way, so and so back home won’t give me any more money…. They also are more aware of who donates to their opponents than they are of just about any other set of facts in the universe. They will forget a spouses’s birthday before they forget that list.”

      It is important to remember that once a politician takes that ‘big money” and then votes accordingly, the way Steve describes, that politician becomes by definition a liar and fraud when he or she claims to vote in the public interest and serve the interests of all the people.

      We know who these people are. And they know who they are. And from that point forward, the politician is corrupted into a career of mounting lies, spin and obfuscations. He or she is thereafter a professional whore, with mounting bad habits, selling their souls again and again to the highest bidder, while at the very same time ever more stridently claiming falsely to serve all their constituents and the public interest, and to act in the best interest of their community, state or nation. It’s a lie.

      Madison, knew this too. It is why he set up checks and balances within our government, a system of of checks and balances that now is collapsing around us for many reason, because it is overrun by all this filthy money that floods the system he created.

      That too is why all this “big money” should be called what it in fact is, “filthy money.” And its why these politicians deserve not our respect, except only when they raise above this prostitution, which, thank God, a few still do.

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