Editorial: Campaign finance limits easily skirted
Source: The Detroit News
The U.S. Court of Appeals has sustained Michigan's limits on contributions to state legislative candidates' campaign committees. The move upholds the state's right to set its own campaign rules, but the limits are very low and rather pointless -- they can be circumvented.
The ruling stems from a 2010 suit and a motion to enjoin the campaign spending limits for each election cycle -- roughly $500 for a state House seat and $1,000 for a state Senate seat.
A federal district court denied the injunction and that denial was recently upheld by the federal appellate court.
Former state GOP official Greg McNeilly complained that his right to participate in the political process was impaired by the state's limits on donations to candidates' campaign committees.
The courts in this case noted, however, that Michigan law does not impose similar restrictions on donations to political parties. The courts also added that the Michigan limits for state lawmaker donations are not so low as to be constitutionally suspect. Other states have even lower caps.
So Michigan's ceiling on direct contributions to legislative campaign committees will survive.
But the ruling is unlikely to have much of a limiting effect on money in state politics. Contributors, as the courts said, are not constrained in their donations to state political parties, which can then route the funds to legislators' campaigns.
Nor, notes Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a watchdog on campaign contributions, are there similar caps on donations to political action groups, which can also funnel money to candidates' election efforts. In the 2010 election cycle, the Republican Governors Association PAC spent $8.4 million in Michigan, followed by the House Democratic caucus PAC at $3.7 million, the Senate GOP PAC at $2.5 million and the UAW PAC at $1.7 million. A $500 individual donation pales beside such spending.
And there are so-called "issue" ads that can serve as thinly disguised campaign commercials for or against candidates that can be purchased with funds raised without similar limits.
The effect of the ruling may be to simply strengthen party and PAC influence on political campaigns.
It is certainly true that it may not be politically healthy for a single lawmaker or candidate to be too beholden to one or a few large individual donors, but it might make more sense to raise the cap on individual donations and tighten up on individual campaign disclosure requirements and fines.
Candidates can then be more easily held accountable for their donors and money can be more easily traced than through a maze of PACs, issue committees and independent expenditure groups that can support a legislative campaign as long as it is not "controlled" by that campaign.
The better answer is to require fuller and much more frequent disclosure of all campaign donations in whatever form they take.
Don't expect such reforms to take place in this election cycle, but this sort of expanded and more frequent disclosure is what real campaign finance reform looks like.
(c) 2012, The Detroit News