You’d think a $1.5 million contribution from one person to the Republican’s gubernatorial candidate might get the Democratic legislative leadership to give advancing campaign finance reform another shot.
Think harder. Democratic leadership, including Salem’s own Peter Courtney, who is Senate President, has stubbornly and steadfastly been content with leaving Oregon worse off than where even the Citizens United decision left federal elections.
At least under Citizens United it was constitutional to limit contributions to federal candidates. However, Oregon’s Supreme Court says the state constitution prohibits any limits on campaign contributions to state candidates. Oregon is one of only six states with no limits on contributions. Hence Phil Knight can give $1.5 million to Knute Buehler.
Knight’s just an example of what happens without limits. As but one of many “wealthy big donors,” he’s really not the villain here, only a symptom of a system Democrats have been unwilling to ask us if we want changed.
In 2015 Senate Joint Resolution 5 would have sent voters a simple constitutional amendment allowing limits on political contributions. After referral to the Senate Rules Committee, a committee closely controlled by Senate majority leadership, Governor Kate Brown and Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins, both Democrats, supported it at a hearing. It died without a vote.
In 2017 a similar resolution was introduced in the House. It didn’t even get a hearing.
What are Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek of Portland afraid of? Political debate is full of noise from Democrats protesting the corruptive influence of “wealthy big donors” on the aura of politics in America. So why won’t they let us vote on allowing contribution limits?
Perhaps it’s because a 2006 attempt to amend the constitution failed. However, it was much more complicated then. The amendment, Measure 46, included a provision requiring a three-fourths vote in the legislature to change any previously enacted limits. Surreptitiously, it was accompanied by Measure 47 which enacted limits so unrealistic even supporters of campaign finance reform found untenable, leading them to join the campaign against Measure 46.
But the public desire for campaign limits was revealed when Measure 47 passed, though it could not be implemented because the Measure 46 constitutional amendment failed.
More likely it’s because the Democratic legislative leadership simply calculated they have their own “wealthy big donors” and can hold their own in a world of unlimited contributions.
That’s a fool’s folly, not because they can’t win, but because of what it does to elections and trust in our democracy.
Money doesn’t assure victory, but it alters the scales. In a good week a hard-working candidate might scrape together $10,000 with a few $1500 checks and a fundraiser the $25 crowd can attend. That can quickly be overwhelmed by a $50,000 contribution from one individual to the other side.
Looked at another way, if you’re well-off and generous enough to give $1000, the candidate you support has to find another 49 other people to give the same to counter that $50,000, or find five hundred $100 donors.
And if it’s $1.5 million? Then all you need is 30 contributions of $50,000, or 15,000 contributions of $100.
Compare this with a system that limits contributions to, say $10,000. Many would consider that too high, but it would be harder to unfairly tip the scales that way. Do we really believe we’d be undermining democracy and suppressing the “wealthy big donor” free speech if one could give only $10,000?
The more money flows from the few, no matter which party or candidate it goes to, the more big money skews the political agenda. The more the difference between what one wealthy person can give and what the average citizen can give, the more the voice of the many is slowly destroyed by the desires of the few.
Polls in Oregon and nationally show bi-partisan support for limits on contributions to candidates. The only reason Oregon is worse off than what Citizens United created is the Democratic legislative leadership has refused to give voters a chance to decide otherwise.