The Virginia bait and switch

As the corruption trial of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell (R) reaches its third week, critics of a free and open political system are trying to use the former governor’s ethical lapses as a launching point for new campaign finance restrictions.  As is so often the case when the speech police get in high dudgeon, however, the case has nothing to do with campaign finance.

Meredith McGehee, lobbyist for the regulatory advocate Campaign Legal Center, fired the latest salvo in a column last week in The Hill.  McGehee writes:

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“For many years, opponents of restrictions on the role of money in politics have held out the state of Virginia to legitimize their opposition to campaign finance reform.  A state with few restrictions on money in campaigns, not much disclosure, and few ethics laws, Virginia has been heralded by reform opponents as showing what politics at the national level could look like if the federal campaign finance laws were repealed.  The picture they painted was of patrician politicians above it all, incorruptible by plebian concerns of money, legislating for the Commonwealth on purely ideological grounds.

"… if there was any doubt that this bucolic ideal is in fact a pipe dream, the trial of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) is demolishing it.  The trial is a daily display of a politician and his wife keenly interested in using the highest office in the state to “live large” – a world of Rolexes, Ferraris, vacation homes and private jets.  While McDonnell claims in his defense that accepting these gifts from Jonnie Williams did not include any reciprocal “official acts,” there is no dispute that he and his wife accepted the gifts, just whether or not they traded official acts for the gifts."

McGehee’s attack is dishonest in several ways. Those of us in the pro-speech camp often do cite Virginia – with no limits on sources or sizes of contributions, but with solid disclosure laws – as a model, and we note that Virginia consistently ranks near or at the top of states in surveys on the quality of governance, in addition to enjoying robust economic growth.

But as political strategist Sean Parnell, former president of the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP) points out, McGehee is attacking a straw man: “Somewhere out there I suppose there may be the First Amendment advocate/campaign finance regulation skeptic who touts Virginia as having a pure and clean form of politics, untainted by corruption. But I have not run across such a person… .” Parnell notes that a 2008 study by CCP itself ranked Virginia in a group of states with “medium corruption,” and a 2013 update moved Virginia into the “high corruption category. The question is not whether there is “corruption” in Virginia, but whether McGehee’s remedy, more campaign finance laws, makes a difference.

Note that for faux reformers such as McGehee, government corruption in states that have aggressive regulatory regimes is never seen as an indictment of regulation, even when scandal stems directly from the regulatory regime, such as misuse and corruption in the use of public (i.e. government provided) campaign funds 

McGehee also pulls a bait and switch to make her case.

She talks of “money in politics,” “campaign finance reform," "money in campaigns," "not much disclosure" [sic], and then, almost as an afterthought, "few ethics laws," before leaping back to talk of repealing “campaign finance laws.”

But McDonnell’s foibles are not about campaign contributions or campaign finance laws. Rather, they involve personal gifts given not for campaigning, but to pocket in exchange for official action. If the McDonnell scandal represents a failure of the law (it's not clear that it does - McDonnell is being prosecuted), it is those "ethics laws" that are relevant, not the much broader category of campaign finance that McGehee leads with and mentions repeatedly. 

Political activists have long sold campaign finance regulation like a 19th century patent medicine - "it's good for what ails ya." Campaign finance reform is offered up as the cure for almost any real or perceived scandal, policy failure, or any thing people don't like about politics and government. Reform legend "Granny D" even offered up campaign finance reform as a prevention for future 9/11 type events.

It’s a rather shameful game the “reformers” play, but apparently they’ve decided that when “money in politics” is the issue, cutting a few corners of intellectual honesty seems like the ethical thing for “good government” advocates to do.

Smith is former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and current chair of the Center for Competitive Politics.