A hallway in the Capitol crowded with citizen and corporate lobbyists during the legislature’s 2019 session. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Imagine my shock at reading a Virginia Mercury story that a joint legislative subcommittee empaneled to study reforming Virginia’s half-century-old, anything-goes political finance law was off to a crawling start.
(For those who don’t know that I am a hopeless smart-ass, the preceding paragraph was meant to drip with sarcasm.)
As one of just 11 states that impose no limits on the amounts donors can give to candidates, Virginia has long been considered the Wild West frontier of political money. Candidates can even spend what their campaigns raise on personal perks, something the federal government and at least 47 other states forbid.
Take all you want from rich uncles, Fortune 100 corporations, dominant regional utilities and in-state industries — you name it — but disclose all you take, including by name, address and other identifying information. That’s the way it has been since the current campaign finance law was adopted in 1970.
It’s been such a sweet deal for the powerful and those who seek elective power for more than two generations that, if you were one of the system’s beneficiaries, would you be in a hair-on-fire hurry to close the spigot?
The most meaningful development in all those years that opened the blinds for the public on the gushing pipeline of unrestricted cash spilling into the hands of candidates for public office had nothing to do with legislation.
Until the late 1990s, the average Virginian had no way to determine how much money any given candidate was taking or where the cash (and the strings tied to it) came from. While all giving was supposedly disclosed, that information was on tons of paper forms tucked away in filing cabinets and boxes. Just finding it was a Herculean chore, not to mention the task of making sense of it all.
Enter technology and a consortium of news organizations, good-government groups and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Public Policy spearheaded by former state government reporter David Poole. For the first time, data from those documents was keyed into a digital dataset for computer analysis, enabling tech-savvy journalists to track major donors pursuing state policy objectives and the candidates they believed would be most favorable toward those ends.
Thus the now ubiquitous Virginia Public Access Project, available online to anyone, anywhere, any time, was born in 1997. The nonprofit and independent watchdog is still by far the most valuable tool available for any reporter covering state politics. Its website, VPAP.org, also demystified the data for curious Virginia voters by presenting it in reader-friendly interactive charts, graphs and maps.
Over time, VPAP has expanded its mission to track who’s lobbying whom and why, plus the money and gratuities lawmakers and other state officials receive from those trying to influence them. It also compiles the state’s most comprehensive daily reading list of political and government news and commentary at the local, state and federal levels. (I acknowledge this through gritted teeth even though VPAP refuses to include this column among its wide-ranging offerings.)
There are limits, however, to what rote, reflexive disclosure can achieve, even with the clarifying analytical might of VPAP, because money and influence constantly adapt to find murky back-channels.
What good is disclosure when political nonprofits known as dark-money groups, legally engineered to conceal their funders behind benign-sounding organizational names, become players and tilt the game with untraceable cash?
Consider the evolution of campaign finance since Virginia first enacted its law half a century ago. The Watergate burglary that ultimately exposed the vast criminal enterprise rooted in Richard Nixon’s West Wing hadn’t even happened yet.
Who could have imagined the changes in the subsequent decades? The 2002 McCain-Feingold law banished “soft money” donations from the federal process. In 2010, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision voided that law’s limits, effectively dynamiting the floodgates to unleash unlimited cash from big business, labor and nonprofits to fund independent political advocacy short of direct contributions to or coordination with candidates themselves.
In such a dynamic political ecosystem, might it finally be time for Virginia to consider reforms to its laissez faire campaign finance laws?
One would imagine. But politics is its own universe where the only consistent, inviolable rule is that power always seeks to protect its prerogatives.
Sir Isaac Newton’s foundational law of physics only partially applies to political physics. As in the natural world, an object at rest tends to remain at rest, as the straggling pace of both Virginia’s new independent, bipartisan Redistricting Commission (hobbled partly by delayed census data) and its campaign finance study panel illustrate. Inertia is the fundamental state of political action and tremendous energy (and money) is necessary to overcome it.
The other half of Newton’s law, that an object in motion tends to remain in motion, breaks down in the orbit of politics. Once something gains momentum, seemingly anything can slow it down or stop it. Witness the numerous snakebit attempts in Congress to repair the nation’s dilapidated infrastructure, an imperative decades overdue that should be low-hanging fruit for both parties. Or consider that in February, a bill passed unanimously in Virginia’s House of Delegates to ban personal use of campaign funds got sidetracked by the Senate into the nether world of the campaign finance study group.
Study commissions are among the most time-tested legislative maneuvers to create the illusion of action without actually achieving anything. It’s where ideas great and small go to die, usually leaving only obscure reports that fill forgotten three-ring binders as their epitaph.
As the Mercury’s Graham Moomaw reported on Thursday, there are some reasons for the subcommittee’s torpid start. The coronavirus pandemic slowed everything and finding the staff bandwidth to jumpstart the panel’s work has been challenging.
There are also competing demands on chairs of the 14-member panel. For example, one co-chairman, Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, is deeply involved in addressing the urgent crisis in the crowded state mental hospitals and his own passionate mission to establish a permanent Behavioral Health Commission.
But it’s more than fair to question how sincere the entire campaign finance reform effort really is. Among the 10 legislative members of the panel are some of the most powerful, tenured (and amply financed) members of the House and Senate. As Moomaw noted, Sen. David Bulova and Del. Marcus Simon, both D-Fairfax, are the only legislators on the panel who are demonstrated backers of campaign finance reform. Three seats are citizen members appointed by the legislature; a fourth citizen seat, to be filled by Gov. Ralph Northam’s appointee, remained unfilled as late as last week.
By the time the subcommittee holds its first meeting, probably this month, it will be so far behind that there’s no hope of producing a comprehensive report by its deadline of Nov. 1 – the eve of Virginia’s election for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
“I think the whole thing could be pushed back,” Deeds told the Mercury. And Bulova said the recommendation the panel is most likely to produce by then is to continue the study for another year.
Thus the clock ticks, the gravy train rolls and change awaits another year.
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