Show me the money
Published on -2/16/2014, 1:51 PM
Few developments have disrupted American democracy more than the party primary. Forcing internal party disagreements into the open, stripping parties of their right to nominate candidates, encouraging outside groups to take over the parties' electoral roles, and forcing divisions within parties all are byproducts of a well-meaning but poorly functioning system. Other insidious problems also emerge, like the one facing Kansas Republicans at the intersection of primary fights and campaign finance.
The controversy centers on one of the final artifacts of the era of moderate Republican control of the Kansas Senate. Then-Majority Leader Steve Morris had a powerful fundraising tool, a leadership PAC known as the Senate Republican Leadership Committee. During Morris' time as leader, the SRLC was a way for Senate Republicans to fund-raise for campaigns during election years, where Kansas' archaic rules prohibit any direct fundraising by candidates or parties during the legislative session. Leadership committees such as the SRLC help campaigners because the in-session ban makes it almost impossible to properly fund-raise between sine die and August primaries.
The SRLC does not belong to the state Republican Party. If it did, it couldn't raise money during session. So the state GOP has no ability to claim or run the SRLC. The firewall between the state GOP and SRLC became important when Morris, along with almost 20 other Republicans in the Senate, were challenged in the 2012 GOP primary. The SRLC was the main vehicle through which the pro-Morris moderates campaigned in 2012. When the moderate Republicans lost their primaries, Morris was not about to turn the SRLC over to the party's apparatus, the same group that engineered his defeat. Instead, Morris handed control of the SRLC to a loyalist, moderate GOP activist Ryan Wright.
Now the main in-session fundraising arm of Senate Republicans was out of the hands of the majority party in the chamber.
You would be forgiven for thinking the new conservative super-majority in the Senate could just create a new leadership PAC to fund-raise in-session, but the SRLC is more than 20 years old and was grandfathered through when new legislation passed banning the creation of leadership PACs that can fund-raise during the Legislature's session a few years ago. To add insult to injury, not only did Republicans lose the SRLC, Democrats still are able to use their grandfathered leadership PAC, giving them a significant monetary advantage over their GOP rivals.
In 2013, a slow year for fundraising since no elections occurred, the House and Senate Democratic leadership PACs raised approximately $70,000 during the session.
House Bill 2342, under discussion in the Kansas Senate, would ban leadership PACs and require all future non-candidate committees to be formed by party organizations, not legislators. In other words, if Republicans can't fund-raise during the session, they want to be sure Democrats can't do it either. While the bill would put the two party organizations on an even fundraising playing field during the legislative session, it also exposes a significant problem with campaign finance regulations in Kansas. The ban on in-session fundraising is largely symbolic, as there is no evidence from volumes of academic campaign finance literature showing quid pro quo campaign donations triggering specific voting results.
Interest groups follow predictable trends, protecting friendly legislators who vote generally in ways specific groups want to see supported. Research shows the amount of influence campaign contributions buy is minimal, anyway, making the in-session ban largely symbolic. If the Kansas Legislature truly is worried about the appearance of undue influence by contributors, there are much more effective reforms they can create.
The Kansas Legislature should instead expand its disclosure regime. Requiring monthly reports available immediately online for review, mandatory reporting of every contribution no matter how small, and ending anonymous contributions would make a more transparent campaign finance system, allowing accountability to follow the money to whichever party or candidate receives it.
Chapman Rackaway is a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.