UNLESS SOMETHING dramatic occurs, the Illinois General Assembly will get through this session without significantly addressing the issue of caps on campaign contributions.
That should surprise no one. The current system, which was a compromise in the 2009 session, places most of the power in the hands of party leaders. That’s the way the leaders like it, and they have no incentive to change a system that works well for them and requires loyalty by the rank and file. If you remember that 2009 legislation, it was hailed as a “first step” toward more meaningful campaign finance reform. The General Assembly has never even seriously considered step two.
Under current Illinois law, there are limits on how much individuals, corporations, labor unions and other groups can donate to candidates. There is no limit, however, on how much money the parties can give to candidates.
There is no doubt that campaign cash, and its resulting impact on legislation, is a concern. The impact of campaign cash may be even more prevalent during this election season because decisions by the U.S. and Illinois Supreme Court have cleared the way for independent expenditure committees, better known as super PAC’s, to spend money without limits. These committees, which cannot work in collaboration with candidates, can have an enormous influence on a race.
In fact, the super PAC influence may be greater in a Congressional or state legislative race than at the presidential level. Thousands of dollars in spending at the right time by a super PAC could easily influence a smaller race. It will be much harder, and more expensive, to influence larger races.
House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie attempted to curb the influence of super PACs in Illinois this session through legislation that would lift the limit on all contributions if a super PAC spent more than a certain amount. That legislation appears to be going nowhere.
That’s probably a good thing.
While the influence of cash on the system is disturbing, we’ve come to conclude that limiting campaign contributions is not the answer. The Supreme Court has said that such contributions are a free speech issue. In reality, any caps on campaign contributions will create loopholes. And politicians are really good at finding those loopholes.
A better remedy is openness and transparency. Immediate, such as within 24 hours, reporting of campaign contributions and expenditures would give voters the opportunity to determine what kind of groups were “independently” supporting the candidate. Immediate reporting of such activities would lessen the impact of “last minute” campaign advertisements that may influence an election.
This General Assembly session has been rightly focused on solving the state’s financial crisis. But in the future, campaign finance must be addressed. The best way to address that issue is to give voters the tools to know where the money is coming from and how it’s being spent.