Wealthy donors are influencing state and federal elections more than ever, while the prospects for reforming campaign finance laws fade. Big-money donors are exploiting a landscape without limits in Pennsylvania. Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett and Democrat Dan Onorato are piling up unprecedented numbers of six-figure contributions.
Corbett has received a dozen donations of $100,000 or more from individuals or groups, including $280,000 from Terrence and Kim Pegula, who earned their fortune in the methane-gas industry. Onorato has collected 11 six-figure contributions. Philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest kicked in $200,000 and unions have also contributed heavily, including more than $400,000 from affiliates of the Laborers organization.
Any individual or group could give these candidates $1 million, if he wanted. Pennsylvania is one of 11 states without limits on cash contributions from individuals or political action committees. The absence of reasonable campaign-finance limits guarantees that big-money donors will enjoy an outsized role in influencing policy debates in Harrisburg. Yet legislators perennially reject calls to set sensible rules for elections.
A bill by state Rep. Babette Josephs (D., Phila.) would set an individual limit of $5,000 for donations to statewide candidates, which is generous by federal standards. It has bipartisan support. But the legislation has languished since April in the House Appropriations Committee, where Chairman Dwight Evans (D., Phila.) cited an “overload of the agenda.” There will always be excuses for ignoring this needed reform, but not good excuses.
At the federal level, the prospects for reform are equally bad. Since the Supreme Court ruled this year that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts, there has been a proliferation of shadowy groups paying for TV ads targeting candidates. The Washington Post reported that independent groups known as “super PACs” are registering at a rate of one per day to spend millions on individual congressional races. The Republican-affiliated American Crossroads’ super PAC spent $2.8 million in just two days on TV ads attacking U.S. Senate candidate Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania and three other Democrats. Some liberal groups are waging similar campaigns against Republican candidates.
A House committee chaired by Rep. Bob Brady (D., Phila.) last week approved a bill to create a “fair election” system that would include grants and matching funds. It’s a good idea that would increase the value of small donations in congressional campaigns. But the chances of this measure becoming law are virtually nil. Senate Republicans won’t even agree to a measure requiring large campaign donors simply to identify themselves. That’s not a low bar; it’s no bar at all.