As with any regulation, campaign finance “reform” creates an imbalance that favors moneyed interests and insiders. The moneyed interests can afford the expense to overcome the regulations and to find loopholes, while the insiders know how to game the system (having helped create it) and can expect leniency when caught pushing the envelope.
Meanwhile, outsiders must take care to dot every “i,” because they have reason to fear the law will come down on them if they miss any.
As somebody skeptical about the constitutionality of the entire project, when first beginning to feel my way around campaign finance law, I was disconcerted to conclude that a pair of neighbors throwing together a little bit of money for signage to support a candidate for some minor local office would technically have to file reports as a PAC. Of course, it only becomes an issue if somebody else knows the rules well enough to complain and the insiders on up the chain decide it is an issue.
So, when I see a news story about a local labor union that set up two PACs so as to give more money to a local Democrat, I wonder where the judicial precedent is and why nobody (such as the “good government” group, Common Cause RI) seems interested in asking the Board of Elections and courts to opine. Adam and Kate down the street would arguably have to abide by donation limits even if they formed no organization, because their activities in support of a candidate constitute a de facto PAC. Yet, the labor union (with all its connections and legal backing) has no limits other than the number of PACs it is willing to set up, changing a word in the name of each.
Similarly, when somebody spots a paid advertisement from the Johnston School Committee, endorsing incumbent state Representative Deborah Fellelah, the average Rhode Islander is apt to ask, “Are they allowed to do that?”
According to a Rhode Island campaign finance official:
There is nothing in campaign finance law that would prohibit an entity, in this case a School Committee, from making an independent expenditure. However, there may be a prohibition on the use of the committee’s funds in its by-laws or charter.
As a question of rights and political philosophy, the official’s answer is straightforward enough. If the people of Johnston don’t want their elected officials spending tax dollars for electioneering, then they can pass local rules forbidding such a thing or just vote out anybody who does it.
Still, it feels like the sort of thing that people would understand you just don’t do… until some insider decides to go ahead and do it. Here the committee is thanking a state-level politician for helping it get more money by spending some of that money to support her politically; perhaps they even asked the district’s own attorney to research whether it would be legal. Surely that’s simply wrong, but the question of insiders everywhere wafts in: “Waddaya gonna do about it?” (Fellela, by the way, is a principal’s secretary in the Providence school district, so every time she votes for more education funding, generally, she’s helping her own employer.)
Frankly, this web of political interests and mutual support is evidence that our entire system is corrupt. But for this post, the central point is the growing sense that the benefit of the legal doubt will always be applied unequally as insiders continue to find “loopholes” in the rules that they have helped to create.