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Bad News For Campaign Finance Reform: 3 Things We Need To Change

Nathaniel Haas |
March 20, 2014 | 9:14 p.m. PDT


For a democracy, knowing who donates is vital to the public interest. (Jaclyn Wu, Neon Tommy)
For a democracy, knowing who donates is vital to the public interest. (Jaclyn Wu, Neon Tommy)
It’s not often that contemporary political wisdom is found in the words of mathematicians from the seventeenth century, but in this case, the Englishman Isaac Barrow is worth consulting: 

“Wherefore for the public interest and benefit of human society it is requisite that the highest obligations possible should be laid upon the consciences of men.” 

In a democracy such as this one, there should be heavy emphasis on the public interest. What our elected officials do and how they do it falls squarely under that tent, but when it comes to campaign finance reform, the conscience of our elected men and women often conflicts with the public interest. Hold this thought. 

Democrats in the California State Legislature were handed a bruising defeat this week, as a bill to further amend the Political Reform Act was blocked by a one-vote margin. Though a majority of Senators (all Democrats) voted for the bill, it fell short of meeting a rule that requires that any bill that amends the Political Reform Act pass with two-thirds of the vote, rather than a simple majority. The struggle highlights several issues that bear discussing. Here are the top three: 

First, the two-thirds requirement should be reduced to a simple majority.

The Political Reform Act (PRA) was originally passed in 1974, but has been amended countless times.  Given the increasing role gridlock plays in politics, the supermajority rule could use some reconsidering. 

The budget voting reform is proof of this. Up until 2010, a two-thirds majority was also required to pass a budget through the legislature. Proposition 25, passed by voters, reduced that threshold to a simple majority. Voters realized that the two-thirds requirement, intended to force bipartisanship, actually gifted the minority party with de-facto veto power in the same way that a 60-vote cloture threshold gives disproportionate power to the minority party in the United States Senate. The result, up until 2010, was an annual fiscal catastrophe of missed deadlines and debauchery that made California look like a fiscal buffoon. 

Though a supermajority requirement still exists for things like raising taxes, that’s not the point (we’ll save budget reform for a different article). What it does prove is that a simple look in the mirror shows us that the same reform Prop. 25 brought to the budget should be brought to the PRA. In this case, it makes sense for the GOP to oppose efforts at reform. In a largely blue state, fundraising and super PACs offer one of the only advantages to a Republican trying to seek office. Nevertheless, in the public interest, the spirit of democracy is rule by the majority—not rule by the supermajority—and the rule should be changed to reflect that. 

Second, the blame isn’t entirely with the GOP—Senate Democrats need to get their act together.

Up until now, reforming the PRA has been easy for Democrats because they possess the required supermajority in both houses. In fact, the reform bill in question was virtually guaranteed passage through the Senate until Democrat Senators Rod Wright of Baldwin Hills (who is on a leave of absence after being convicted of eight felonies) was joined on the sidelines by Ron Calderon of Montebello, who was recently brought up on 24 of his own felony charges stemming from accepting bribes in exchange for legislation.

Calderon’s absence was the critical decider in the fate of the proposed amendment. Ironically, Calderon is in legal hotwater over illegal contributions, and that absence prevented him from voting for greater restrictions on those contributions during the campaign cycle. As Homer Simpson would say, “DOH!” 

In the spirit of equally spreading the political blame, it’s harder for California Democrats to complain about not meeting supermajority requirements when the misconduct of two senators is responsible for the loss of that supermajority. The Senate, with both Calderon and Wright abroad, passed the very same reform bill last session in the public interest – but it failed this time, with no election since then. The public interest is rolling in its grave. 

Regardless, four Republican Senators voted no on the bill (the other seven Republican Senators declined to vote, which brings us to the third and final lesson:

California needs campaign finance reform.

The failed amendment to the PRA, proposed by Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), would have included measures that increased transparency and disclosure of campaign contributions. More specifically, the bill would have required disclosure of all donations above $50,000. Currently, the first donation from a nonprofit can fly under the radar, no matter how large it is. If a new non-profit is created for each multi-million dollar donation, the spirit of disclosure goes out the window—and it’s perfectly legal. 

For proof, one need look no further than the 2012 statewide elections, where millions of dollars were funneled into the state through a hopelessly complex framework of non-profit organizations, with no names attached. 

Some critics say the law would fly in the face of the Supreme Court’s 2009 Citizen’s United decision, and they would be wrong. Even if this country (erroneously, in my opinion) believes that the richest individuals should be able to donate as much as they want to a political campaign, the reform simply seeks to make their name part of the public record—a small price to pay for upholding some semblance of democracy in today’s brutal world of campaign finance. 

Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) was not to be deterred—and explained why the GOP gave the bill the thumbs down: 

"We will be subjecting people to a different process," Huff said. "They will not have had time to understand the rules of engagement changed."

Translation: Running for office is hard. Beyond the fact that Huff ignores the rule will only apply to contributions after July 1 (which would give over three months to understand the change), let’s call upon our friend Mr. Barrows to answer this from the 17th century:  

“Whence it is somewhat strange that any men from so mean and silly a practice should expect commendation, or that any should afford regard thereto; the which it is so far from meriting, that indeed contempt and abhorrence are due to it.” 

Translation: If you aren’t willing to make the practice fairer, you shouldn’t expect anything in return. Uphold the public interest, and the public will uphold the practice of politics as commendable. 


"State of the Golden State" is a biweekly column on California state politics. Reach Columnist Nathaniel Haas here; follow him here



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