As a general proposition, I’m not sure why we treat it as obvious corruption when a politician uses money donated to his or her campaign for personal purposes.
If the assumption is that people do things only for personal gain, then you have to assume that politicians who don’t need to use campaign finances for personal purposes are profiting from politics by some other way that will be more-difficult to track or understand. If, on the other hand, we acknowledge that people’s motivations are a complex mixture of feelings and motives, then we’re making it much more difficult for candidates with pure motives to make government better by forbidding them from collecting donations from people who want to invest directly in their political careers.
A billionaire might help fund the career of a politician in order to get a direct personal gain from government, or a billionaire might fund a politician to advance policies he or she thinks would make the world better. “Aha!,” you might object. “The whole point of campaign finance is to make sure that moneyed interests don’t buy our government.”
But all we’re doing by creating a labyrinth of campaign finance regulations is raising the ante to play that game. A billionaire has limitless avenues by which to buy off a politician spanning that person’s entire life and career. In contrast, even a small group of middle-class families could provide enough direct funding to a candidate that he or she could afford to run for public office in lieu of working.
Notice a key difference between those two approaches. In the first instance, the politician has to stay bought because many of the benefits he or she receives from special interests will come in the future, by way of lifelong career opportunities. In the second instance, the politician owes his or her donors some gratitude, but being in office, he or she likely has some sort of government pay and also has a higher profile by which to broaden his or her field of supporters and is therefore more free to take positions that the initial patrons might not like. Yet, we ban the latter and ignore the former. (That probably isn’t only because the more-subtle corruption is harder to conceptualize and stop. Rather, powerful people like it, so they suppress noise about it.)
All of the above is rambling context for my reaction to an intriguing explanation former Democrat state senator Elizabeth Crowley gave Ted Nesi for campaign finance violations that resulted in a $6,000 fine:
“My regret is that I’m a sloppy bookkeeper,” she said.
Crowley, 69, said she frequently gave campaign cash to homeless individuals on the street corners near the State House or back in her district.
“What I would be doing is if you had a sign, if you were homeless, I’d give you $20, $25, maybe $40 — whatever it was that you needed,” she said. “So I didn’t get a receipt from you, so I can’t prove that. But I’m not going to go around herding up all the people I gave money to, because that would be fruitless.”
An understandable first reaction would be to laugh at the convenience of the excuse, but go a level deeper. Why is handing out cash to the homeless an allowable campaign expense? We’re requiring candidates to have enough income that they don’t need campaign funds for personal expenses, so why do they not have to be sufficiently well-off to hand out thousands of their own dollars to assuage their charitable impulses?
Did donors give that money to Crowley so she could be charitable, or to help her get elected?
Assuming she’s telling the truth about where the money went, one way to square this circle would be to assume that she encouraged the recipients of her handouts to vote for her. That, at least, would be consistent with the intent of the people who gave her the money. Of course, buying votes so directly rightly has a sleazy, perhaps illegal, feel.
Whatever Crowley’s actual expenditures, or her reasons for them, we should give some more thought to the actual, practical effects of regulating politics as we do. Regulating candidacies shrinks the pool of candidates, even from aversion to the hassle and risk of $6,000 fines for sloppy book-keeping. It also ensures that the massive amounts of money that special interests want to use to influence our increasingly centralized and powerful government has to be well laundered, such that the successful politician will often be the one with the greatest talent for corruption.