Monday, June 12, 2006

Pay to Play

Campaign Finance reform was something I applauded for a long time before my Great Reawakening, then McCain-Feingold and similar state laws came and I started to realize what the implementation of it meant. What started as an innocent notion to rid politics of big money influence could only be done by means of putting so many regulations on political activities and organizations (which inevitably had to run on. . .you guessed it. . .money). In the end, while not outright government censorship, it became obvious to me that the constructed complex had hampered free speech and freedom of association in some very terrible ways and, adding insult to injury, had not achieved the promised goals of getting big money out. All it did was mute people and constrain them in webs of regulation while forcing the money to take more circuitous paths.

This nightmare of FEC compliance and its deleterious effect on political speech and activity has risen a great deal of skepticism over campaign finance reform. There is, however, one area I think campaign finance reform can have a big and positive impact without harming free speech much. And New Jersey's "Pay to Play" (quick registration required) laws are a great example of that.

The newspaper's review found the rules have had a wide-ranging impact:

All donations to the Democratic State Committee, a political action committee controlled by the governor, dropped 78 percent from its recent peak in 2001 through 2005, and contractor donations to the PAC plunged 86 percent in the same period. In 2004, one-third of the money the DSC raised came from contractors; last year, it was 6 percent.

Contractor contributions to the "big six" fundraising committees -- the two state party committees and four legislative leadership PACs -- fell from $5.4 million in 2001 to $1.8 million last year.

Late last year Schoor DePalma, a Manalapan engineering firm that donated more than $2.8million to both parties since 1990, ceased all donations.

G-Tech, which runs the lottery system and has been a steady donor to both parties since 1997, stopped all donations in 2004.

Tech, which runs the lottery system and has been a steady donor to both parties since 1997, stopped all donations in 2004.

Parsons Transportation Group, a poster child for pay-to-play criticism in the 1990s when it gave heavily to the Republican Party and got a $500 million state auto emissions testing contract, gave $25,000 to the Democratic State Committee in 2003 and 2004 but nothing since.

The historic reforms were meant to discourage donations to gubernatorial candidates and the ruling governor's party, because the state's chief executive awards contracts. Businesses with government contracts of more than $17,500 are forbidden to make donations larger than $300 to gubernatorial candidates and party committees.

Many may be immediately be ready to call "foul" on this, but I would also immediately point out the fact that contractors are, in effect, de facto members of government bureaucracy. I know all too well and could cite numerous examples (if it wouldn't get me into legal trouble to do so) of how government contractors can use political contributions to secure endless direct payouts of money to their own pockets. This is why, for all of the DoD's attempts, it cannot rid itself of weapons systems it does not want when the contractors who build them line the pockets of the relevant Congressmen. Whereas some may say it's perfectly all right for this sort of "quid pro quo" to happen, I think it's only a hop, skip, and jump to direct bribery.

If someone wants government contracts, they should abstain from political donations and from attempting to guide taxpayer dollars to their own pockets. In the cases that they do attempt to it's not so much free speech as practicing corruption. And, even if it isn't, it's tantamount to allowing individual government programs to give their own funding to Congressmen in contributions (in order to secure even greater funding). They are all, after all, financed out of the same pot, both government contractors and government bureacrats are paid by the taxpayers. So why treat one differently than the other? If these contractors feel so passionately about their free speech and politics, they are always free to practice it independent of their various firms and as a private citizen. These laws are a great example of how campaign finance reform can have a positive effect without damaging political rights much, and how democracies and governments may need similar rules if corruption is to be anything less than rampant.