The Virginia General Assembly has always set the bar low for campaign financial accountability. And every winter our lawmakers fail to even clear that.
The way the state invites corruption by firmly rejecting even modest attempts to curb the influence of runaway and unlimited money in politics has put Virginia at the back of the class for decades in the rankings of independent guard dogs.
Not even a scandal that nearly landed a Virginia governor in federal prison for gratuitous personal dealings with a high-flying businessman seeking to outsmart the system in favor of his company’s unproven nutritional supplement has failed. shames Virginia for tightening its campaign finance laws.
The most recent slight came last week when a Republican-led House of Delegates subcommittee euthanized legislation that would bar candidates for public office from using unspent money raised for their political campaigns. As they wish.
Dine in a five-star bistro? Enjoy your lunch!
Are you going with your darling for a getaway in the Caribbean? Have a good trip!
Any or all of this is completely legal here.
It is a bipartisan failure. Last year, similar legislation was passed unanimously by the House to have its throats cut in the Senate, with both houses then controlled by Democrats.
Virginia is one of the few states to allow politicians to use unspent campaign money to be diverted with impunity for personal gain.
Oh, they’re supposed to note the purposes for which campaign money was spent, but if they’re just reimbursing themselves for vague, unitized expenses, that seems to work just fine.
In most states and at the federal level, it is a crime. And it should be in Virginia. Legislation to ban it here comes up every legislative session. And, just as often, lawmakers invent new ways to hijack it and get the sauce rolling.
Is every lawmaker abusing their campaign for personal gain? No. Having tracked campaign finances and filings by lobbyists, office holders and job seekers for many years as a Capitol Square scribe, I can say this runs the gamut.
There were those who were so scrupulous that they itemized and documented every donation, petty cash disbursement; every cup of coffee or tchotchke received from a lobbyist or voter.
Others would bring in the bare minimum or less, whether hunting or cultural trips through industry or well-connected interest groups or in-kind donations – some of them worth thousands. dollars – political propellants or lobbyists with minimal details about the thing of value.
Gifts from lobbyists were limited after Governor Bob McDonnell was convicted of federal crimes for undeclared gratuities he and his family received from Jonnie Williams. Williams testified in 2014 against the former governor and his then-wife Maureen McDonnell that he was trying to fit his Anatabloc supplement into the state employee health benefits program. (Williams never had it.)
McDonnell was ordered to report to jail before the United States Supreme Court overturned the convictions.
But political money? It continues to flow unrestrained, even as more states have imposed limits in the first two decades of the 21st century.
Virginie has always affirmed a laissez-faire argument for political finance – give as much as you want (individuals, PACs, businesses, unions, etc.), but report all you give.
Until the 1990s, this was little more than a mockery, as campaign finance reports filed by donors and candidates were on paper forms – literally tons of them, filling huge reserves . You could hide almost anything this way until the mid-90s when the Virginia Public Access Project began entering data from paper forms into sortable electronic databases and making the information available, first to media organizations that helped support them and eventually to the world at no cost.
To the extent that the unlimited donation/full disclosure model works in Virginia, it’s a tribute to the VPAP.
But even this progress has its limits. Campaign finance law is constantly changing, creating new ways for shadowy influence groups to flood the system with anonymous “dark money” hiding its true source and related public policy objectives at least until the end. end of the elections.
There are also few downsides to providing misleading, incomplete, or evasive information on campaign finance reports. Virginia law prescribes a civil fine – not even a misdemeanor – for campaign finance reporting violations.
Don’t bet on Virginia limiting donations or spending soon. We will continue to see the rich flood the system and bend it to their will, but they are already doing it – even at the federal level with all its regulations – through Super PACs and black money groups. In theory, if disclosure can be assured, there is a philosophical argument in support of bottomless campaign donations and spending.
But what happened last Wednesday in a House Privileges and Elections subcommittee was not just a failed layup. They were a team that found a way to get the game started.
The law project had passed the Senate 37-3. His boss, Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun, stood before a handful of delegates knowing that a bill to limit the personal use of campaign money had already died in the House led by the Republicans. He had toned down his bill so that buying campaign volunteers pizza or outfitting them with campaign logo t-shirts wouldn’t be a violation. He was willing to strike other deals to curry favor with the panel.
A provision he saw as a selling point allowed campaign money to pay for childcare for campaign volunteers. Some states that prohibit the personal use of campaign funds have added such exceptions to their law to encourage volunteer participation in campaigns.
Then, in a remarkable display of legislative judo, Del. Kim Taylor, R-Dinwiddie, argued that the campaigns had nothing to do with helping volunteers with children.
“It’s a personal expense. It’s something you go into your campaign knowing you’re going to have to make arrangements for,” Taylor said according to Reporting by Graham Moomaw in Mercury. Bell offered to scrap it, despite Taylor’s apparent failure to recognize the conflict in its logic – that ramming the bill through ensured that campaigns could continue to spend money for exactly that purpose (or to any other).
Taylor and the other four Republicans on the panel voted to table Bell’s bill; his three Democrats voted to advance him.
Bell acknowledged that the bill wasn’t perfect, but noted that it “will take care of the most egregious things.” It was a belief shared by the top Republican in the Senate, Minority Leader Tommy Norment of James City.
“People should know that we are here to serve…not to enrich ourselves,” Bell said.
Perhaps the laziest rationalization for scrutinizing the bill came from Del. Margaret Ransone, chair of the entire P&E committee, who crafted an easy rationale from Bell and Norment’s frankness.
“To put something in the code that’s not perfect, that’s not just right, I feel like that’s wrong,” said Ransone, R-Westmoreland.
Perfection? Fallibility is inherent in human-drafted legislation, especially in a part-time deliberative body like our General Assembly. It spawned comically flawed legislation, but here the perfect has become the enemy of the good.
In 2004, a bill that accidentally restored Sunday closing laws dating back to the 17th century was unanimously approved in the Virginia Senate and passed the House of Delegates 88-9. It became law, requiring the General Assembly to return to Richmond in June to fix it before it could force shops and factories to close on the Christian Sabbath after its July 1 effective date.
Some of the intellectual product of the legislature blew just beyond the imperfect hell for the moron. In 2005, the House voted 60 to 34 to impose a $50 fine on anyone caught wearing pants so low they displayed conspicuous underwear. Wiser heads prevailed before one could become law.
If our elected legislators want Virginia to remain a backwater of campaign financial accountability and allow money solicited for public policy purposes to become a personal slush fund, just say so. Voters would find honesty refreshing.