It’s too bad that Missouri was not among the five states where millions of voters Nov. 6 sent a message that they want their elected leaders to rein in out-of-control campaign spending.
Two states, Colorado and Montana, overwhelmingly passed ballot issues urging their congressional delegations to support passage of a federal constitutional amendment that would, in effect, overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. That decision helped make last week’s election the most costly and least transparent in the nation’s history. Dozens of cities in three other states passed similar measures, most of them pushed by the government watchdog group Common Cause.
More than $1.3 billion was spent by outside groups on this year’s election, according to the Sunlight Foundation. The good news is most of that money ended up being a bad investment. Voters saw through the avalanche of negative television ads paid for by big donors.
Voters should make sure future elections are run under different rules.
No state could benefit more from changes to state and federal campaign finance law than Missouri. The Show-Me State has no campaign contribution limits and no enforceable rules to limit the practice of hiding the identities of donors by shuffling funds among political committees.
A perfect example of this laundromat in action is the experience of the federal super PAC Now or Never. To borrow a phrase, Now or Never was against Todd Akin before it was for him.
In the run-up to Missouri’s August primary, Now or Never ran advertisements in favor of former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman’s bid to win the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.
After Akin, a U.S. House member from Wildwood, won the primary, the super PAC — advised by political consultant Jeff Roe of Kansas City — tapped into some deeper, national pockets. It began running advertisements in several states opposing Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate.
The biggest donor to Now or Never was a Virginia-based nonprofit which won’t have to report its donors until long after the election. Eventually, Now or Never figured — wrongly, as it turned out — that Akin still had a shot in Missouri. It spent about $1 million in completely anonymous donations on his behalf.
The defenders of the “no-limit” world in Missouri’s campaign finance world argue that campaign donations are akin to free speech, and they have the U.S. Supreme Court on their side. But nowhere in the constitution does it guarantee that the source of that free speech can be hidden from sight. Indeed, in its Citizens United ruling, the court suggested that transparency would rule out the possibility of corruption.
The best way to ensure clean elections is to finance them publicly. Short of that, there should be reasonable limits on how much politicians can take from donors, be they individuals, political action committees or — in the post-Citizens United world — corporations or unions.
In 1994, 74 percent of Missouri voters agreed with that sentiment and put limitations on political contributions in place; the legislature took it upon itself in 2008 to dump those limits. Congress has limited donations in federal races. Obviously, the rise of the super PACs has limited the effectiveness of those limits.
But even if the “no-limit” advocates are right, there is simply no justification for donors to be able to hide the source of their funds. Missouri law makes that illegal, at least theoretically, as state Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, pointed out in his opinion piece in the Post-Dispatch on Tuesday. Clearly, the law needs to be strengthened; Mr. Barnes is right to urge his party to get behind such a change.
As we pointed out previously, there were two egregious examples in the Missouri primary season of donors establishing nonprofit corporations, funneling donations from the sham corporations to political action groups, and thus denying voters the opportunity to have any idea who was trying to buy their influence. One of the groups spent money on behalf of Democrats and Republicans. The other played only in a Republican primary.
This is not a partisan problem. It’s an American problem.
As wide as the political divide is in this nation, it would be difficult to find anyone — at least anyone who isn’t making money off the political process — who believes it’s right that wealthy donors can conceal their identities while trying to influence the outcome of the electoral process.
The Missouri Republicans who control the legislature should follow Barnes’ lead. Bring transparency to the political process in Missouri. In his state of the state speech in January, Gov. Jay Nixon should make fixing the state’s broken campaign finance system a priority.
Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service should start cracking down on wayward nonprofits that exist solely, or at least primarily, as avenues to launder money.
Finally, we have a message for Common Cause: Come to Missouri. We need your help.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.