As all you readers of Blue Mass Group know, anonymous big money in politics is a major problem. Luckily, today or tomorrow, if all goes well, the Legislature will finalize a bill to clamp down on anonymous SuperPac spending. That’s good law, of course. Reason 1.
But some want to torpedo the SuperPAC disclosure legislation at the last minute because of a part of the bill that raises individual contribution limits from $500 to $1,000.
Actually, the increase in the limit is a feature of the bill, not a bug. For democracy in Massachusetts, raising that limit is very likely to be a good thing, and is almost certainly not a bad one. It’s the 2nd reason the disclosure bill rocks. Follow me into the weeds to find out why.
In my life as an activist, reducing the power of big money in politics was my first love. I got the bug in 1996, pushing back against big-money-backed ancient right-winger Jesse Helms in North Carolina (younger readers, google him if you want, but be warned, his legislative record was terrifying). In 1997, I collected signatures and organized at Harvard and elsewhere for a reform campaign run by Mass Voters for Clean Elections, and I continued to support that campaign for years. Later I interned for the National Voting Rights Institute, a campaign finance reform group that eventually merged into Demos. And I kept the fires burning during six years at the helm of MassVOTE.
So what has happened in the past fifteen or so years that I’ve been watching the issue? Nothing good. Citizens United was perhaps the worst, but it is just rotten icing on already rancid cake. It is simply far too hard to run for office unless you are wealthy (or at least upper middle class) and/or have lots of well-off friends and connections. Or, perhaps, a billionaire or two to back you.
Consider the statewide offices: governor, auditor, secretary of state, attorney general, etc. The job of governor has a high enough profile that no incumbent ever gets a free pass at reelection… but who ever takes a serious shot an incumbent secretary of state or attorney general or auditor? No one. And why would they? – at a maximum of $500 a pop, it takes thousands of donors to raise the $1 million plus needed to run for an office like that. Even long-term sitting members of the State House and Senate don’t have that kind of money in their campaign accounts. So if you are, say, the Secretary of State, the job is pretty much yours for life unless you decide to retire or get indicted. Is that how the founders wanted things to work?
In an ideal system, there would be public funds to match small dollar donors. But that’s not on the table right now. What is on the table is a modest increase, from $500 to $1,000, of the individual limit. As a result, candidates running for office – mainly incumbent legislators, but including challengers, too – may be able to spend slightly less time fundraising, and thus have more time for talking to voters, doing their day jobs and living the rest of their lives as a result. And incumbents in the most expensive offices (people with war chests of $1 million or more) may be somewhat more likely to be challenged.
Will wealthy voters matter more than they do now? Probably not. For one thing, in our increasingly unequal society, it depends on whether you are talking about well-off people (the top 10%), wealthy people (the 1%), or the super wealthy (the .01%).
The super wealthy already have their SuperPACs, but they will be slightly less likely to use them thanks to the disclosure in the bill. For everyone else, moving from $500 to $1,000 is unlikely to change much. It is certainly less of a change than going to the limits in other states, which are far larger than $500 in all but a handful of states. Plenty of states have limits over $5,000, or no limit at all. Compared to those, Massachusetts will remain a very low limit state indeed.
All in all, then, the modest contribution increase is a small, but good feature of the bill. And don’t forget Reason 1. Until we find a way to reduce independent expenditures in politics – a cause that seems doomed under the current Supreme Court, unless we are able to amend the Constitution – you and I need some way to know, in a timely way, who is paying for the ads that tell us who to vote for. And that’s what the new disclosure bill will do, with some of the best, most transparent rules in the nation.
Kudos to Common Cause of MA, MassVOTE, the League of Women Voters and the Legislature for getting this far. Now, over the top.