How not to address corruption in Illinois politics

Here at the Center for Competitive Politics, we believe that any proposed campaign finance “reform” should be looked at with more than just a little skepticism not only because of the free speech and associational rights at stake, but also because of just who will be enacting the “reform”– namely, incumbent politicians.  In other words, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to wonder whether maybe, just maybe, those enacting the campaign finance “reforms” might ensure their own self interests and political advantages are written into law.

This week, Illinois politicians have proven this, once again, to be true with proposed “reform” legislation that not only serves the interests of the politicians that will pass it, but also will not address the corruption that prompted that state’s discussion in the first place.  Indeed, , if there has been any theme in Illinois’ ongoing post-Blagojevich campaign finance “reform” discussion, that theme has been politicians doing as best as possible to help themselves while being able to claim the “reform” mantle doing it.

You may recall that last month CCP highlighted Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposal to wipe clean the campaign coffers for all 2010 gubernatorial candidates — a proposal that “coincidentally” would erase the hard campaign fundraising work of Gov. Quinn’s potential main opponent, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who has significantly outraised Gov. Quinn up until now.

Illinois Senate Democrats responded with a proposal of their own that would have limited the amount that individuals, labor unions, businesses, and other organizations could contribute to candidates, but “wouldn’t stop legislative leaders from continuing their practice of dipping into the campaign funds they control and making large contributions to preferred candidates.”  In other words, the proposal would have limited the voices of outside individuals and groups in the political process, while increasing the relative power of inside legislative leaders to pressure their rank-and-file to toe the party line.

Faced with these competing proposals, Illinois House and Senate Democrats and Gov. Quinn (also a Democrat) put their heads together to come up with a plan that would serve all of their interests.

On Thursday, they announced a compromise.  Gov. Quinn, who has plans to run in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in eight months, got House Speaker Michael Madigan to agree not to use Democratic Party resources to help Quinn’s main primary opponent — who, interestingly enough, is also Madigan’s daughter.  The compromise also proposes candidate contribution limits of $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for groups, while House and Senate leaders may transfer up to $90,000 per year (note: per year, not per election cycle) to House and Senate candidates, thus, allowing the legislative leaders much higher limits that they can use to keep their rank-and-file in line.

In fact, as shown by CCP’s Research Director Laura Renz and the Illinois Policy Institute’s VP Kristina Rasmussen in an op-ed that appeared in the State Journal-Register (Springfield, Ill.), all of this time being spent on tinkering with contribution limits won’t eliminate any political corruption problem in Illinois.  After all, as Renz and Rasmussen point out, states imposing contribution limits have not been immune from corruption scandals of their own:

Alaska limits individuals to giving $500 to candidates and prohibits corporations and unions from contributing entirely.

Despite that, former state Rep. Beverly Masek recently pleaded guilty to accepting a $4,000 bribe from an industry heavyweight in a classic quid pro quo agreement to kill legislation that she had introduced.

Florida also imposes $500 contribution limits from individuals to candidates, and the state’s House speaker was forced to step down this February because of allegations he received an unadvertised $110,000 a year job at a state university as a reward for delivering millions in favors to the school during his tenure.

For all the talk of “reform” and “reducing corruption,” the big winners if this compromise legislation is passed will be the incumbent political leadership in Illinois.  Gov. Quinn will face a less competitive primary, and House and Senate leadership will have more leverage to force rank-and-file legislators to do as they’re told.  The big losers will continue to be the people of Illinois, who will have their own ability to participate in the political process limited — through the imposition of contribution limits on individuals and groups — while entrenched politicians solidify their power and influence.

Now, I know there are always some linguistic differences between regions (I don’t care what my grandparents say, “pop” makes no sense as a substitute for “soda”), and I’m not from Illinois, but none of this sounds like “reducing corruption” to me.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.