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Will “Reform” Magically Transform Illinois Politics?

Jim Merriner 28 April 2009 No Comment

Limits on campaign contributions are the magic disinfectant for our dirty Illinois politics. Or so all the goo goos seem to believe.
As Scott Turow, former chair of the state Executive Ethics Commission, recently told a General Assembly reform committee: “Our state will continue to be perceived as an ethical swamp, both in Illinois and outside of it, unless we prohibit unlimited campaign donations.” Similar statements are heard from Gov. Quinn’s Illinois Reform Commission, the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, the Better Government Association, Change Illinois Now and, for all I know, the state’s Terrorism Task Force.

The Watergate-era Federal Elections Campaign Act of 1974 imposed limits on campaign contributions to reduce the influence of money in politics. It had exactly the opposite effect. Indeed, its failure was so flagrant that Congress passed a much tougher Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (“McCain-Feingold”) in 2002. It has failed so spectacularly that in 2008, presidential candidates were able to raise a total of $1.7 billion. Such laws are so obviously ineffective that reformers are hectoring us to enact them here.

Slapping ceilings on campaign contributions might be therapeutic—that is, it would make reformers and legislators feel good—but it would not address the ways in which Illinois elections actually work.

Let’s just look at the General Assembly. In any given election cycle, only a handful of seats actually are competitive. The others have been exquisitely gerrymandered to protect the incumbent and his party. So, last November, at most five House seats (out of 118) and five Senate seats (of the 39 up for election then) were seriously contested.

Take the 42nd Senate district, centered in Aurora . Republican candidate Terri Ann Wintermute raised an amazing $791,000 in cash and in-kind contributions. Mostly, this money did not flow personally from the fat-cat state contractors and fixers of legend. Fully 85 percent of the cash (by my calculations) was shoveled in from other political action committees.

For all that, Wintermute lost the election to Democratic Sen. Linda Holmes—who raised an even more amazing $860,000 in cash and in-kind contributions, again with 85 percent of her cash inflowing from other PACs.

These PACs are controlled by special interests and political bosses. The bosses are so secure in their own seats, they can throw around their PAC money to rank-and-file legislators, thereby buying their backbones. Holmes, by way of example, received $150,000 from the Illinois Senate Democratic Fund and $100,000 from the separate Senate Democratic Victory Fund. Her opponent, Wintermute, took $370,000 from the Republican State Senate Campaign Committee and another $171,000 in in-kind services from the Illinois Republican Party.

You see a pattern here—lobbyists and political bosses fund PACs that fund candidates to sway a few competitive districts. Defenders of the status quo tout Illinois ’ “sunshine” laws requiring speedy disclosure of contributions, so that we might detect who is buying whom. But these PAC contributions to other campaign committees are listed only by the name of the PAC, shielding the names of the original donors.

Now, if the lobbyists and political bosses were crimped in the amount of money they could contribute to any one PAC at any one time, what difference would that make? They would just spend even more of their time in fund-raising than they do now.

If reformer were serious, they would draft a law to prohibit transfers of funds between PACs. That way, each candidate would have to stand on his or her own two feet and the identities of their donors would be much more transparent.

This reform would be simple, effective, and relatively easy to police. To my knowledge, nobody has proposed it to the various reform committees that are running around the state holding meetings. It has been broached by former Gov. Jim Edgar. He mentioned it briefly—four sentences—in a lecture at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs in Urbana last February.


Jim Meriner is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer

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