According to a report that first appeared in The Caucus, LNP Media Group’s weekly government watchdog publication, special interest groups spent about $147 million in Pennsylvania on the 2016 elections. Campaign finance records indicate some 84,000 separate expenditures during the last election cycle, with single donations well into six figures. As The Caucus reported, interest groups represent, among other matters, public education, medical malpractice claims and automobile insurance.
Yes, $850,000 buys a lot of gavels. That’s how much an organization called the Committee for a Better Tomorrow gave to Democrat Kevin Dougherty’s campaign for state Supreme Court. He won.
The question is, what else does $850,000 buy?
In this case, the committee represents the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association, which opposes rules that tighten restrictions on malpractice cases, including a cap on damage awards. You see the connection, and a myriad of potential conflicts.
As The Caucus reported, state law prohibits judges from soliciting donations. So other people do it for them. A donor doesn’t leave a wheelbarrow full of cash in front of a judge’s door. The money goes to a political action committee and then to the campaign.
And we’re not picking on Dougherty or judges in general. Right or wrong — and we believe wrong — this is how politics and elections work in Pennsylvania. And it needs to change.
Dougherty might have been the top recipient of PAC money in the last election cycle, with a total of more than $2.7 million, but he had bipartisan company on the top 10 list: Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro at $1.8 million; Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati at $1.49 million; and Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai at $1.34 million, to name a few.
One of the problems is that Pennsylvania is one of 12 states that have no limits on donations to PACs or individual candidates. If you represent a cause and have access to a lot of cash, whether you’re a PAC or a private citizen, you can fund a candidate who you believe is “sympathetic” to your situation. It’s buying influence, and there’s nothing illegal about it.
“Anyone has the ability to come to fundraisers and support candidates of their choosing. I have always and will always make it a top priority to do due diligence to ensure compliance with all campaign laws,” Scarnati said in a statement released to The Caucus. “Campaign contributions do not drive my policy decisions.”
We certainly have no reason to doubt Scarnati’s sincerity. But a system in which unlimited amounts of money are able to flow into campaigns in an attempt to purchase influence creates a petri dish for potential corruption.
Committees are required to publicly report who is donating and how much they’re giving if the donation is greater than $250. But the problem isn’t as much about who is giving as it is about how much they’re giving.
Lawmakers can talk all they want about making their decisions independent of PACs and lobbyists. But it’s hard to blame a taxpaying Pennsylvanian for losing faith in the political process when he hears his elected representative received a six-figure check from a mysterious PAC.
Campaign finance reform has historically been a nonstarter in the Legislature. No one wants to cut off the hand that’s holding out the cash.
At the very least — though we have no reason to believe this will happen — the Legislature should take a serious look at capping donations. Right now, campaign spending is out of control. A limit would restore some semblance of sanity to the process.
The biggest problem with the system, as it stands now, is that it leaves Pennsylvanians — those without unlimited funds to donate to candidates — with no voice. If you don’t support this PAC or that lobby, you wait it out on the sidelines while those with the biggest checkbooks pick the winners.
If you’re motivated enough to follow the money, you can go to the Pennsylvania Department of State’s website (dos.pa.gov/pages/default.aspx) and look up campaign finance reports. The system isn’t as user-friendly as it should be, so be prepared to do some work. (Note to State: Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf says his administration is committed to transparency. How about making that website more easily searchable?)
We would encourage you to get involved. Let your lawmakers know if you believe there’s a need for campaign finance reform.
Legislators determine how billions in taxpayer dollars are spent. Taxpayers deserve the assurance that policy is not being made on behalf of the highest bidder.