Wednesday, January 22, 2014

War Chests or Incumbent Insurance Policies?

According to an insightful new posting in Boston Magazine by political reporter David Bernstein, Massachusetts legislators collectively hold more than $9 million in their campaign accounts.

Pols call such campaign accounts "war chests". But, really, what possible need do legislators have for a $9 million campaign war chest? Their nine million dollar war chest is roughly equivalent to the $9,198,265 the very same legislators allocated to the Massachusetts Military Division in the FY'14 budget for real and actual warfare. And, little wonder, most of the ones who are highest up on the list are legislators who haven't faced an honest competitive challenge to their seat (er, um, the "people's seat" they temporarily occupy) for years.

"War chest?" We call it Incumbent Insurance. And, if Incumbent Insurance policies were offered on the Mass. Connector, the $9 million in legislators' war chests would be Platinum-level Coverage.

The problem goes beyond the contribution and expenditure questions that normally come up in the context of campaign finance reform. It's an issue of fairness. Why are politicians allowed to collect donations under the guise of "enhancing their political future", when in fact all they're doing is trying to cement their future in incumbent politics by scaring off potential challengers with an amassed war chest that's bigger than what any challenger reasonably could raise on their own.

Political office was never intended to be a career. "Enhancing one's political future" has turned into a fine art of empire building. The Founding Fathers would be rolling over in their graves. It's time to stop saying to politicians, "If you like your seat, you can keep it."

We propose a solution, and -- cringe -- it involves a new tax, one that even we fiscally-conservative Republicans could get behind in the name of good government.

Unlike the federal campaign finance system, which allows candidates to collect money per-election, the Massachusetts system looks at contributions and expenditures on an annual basis. We think it's time for Massachusetts to adopt the federal system, allowing candidates to collect money to run for a specific office during a specific cycle. (In other words, a state legislative candidate would be on a two-year cycle, statewide candidates would have a four-year cycle, etc.) Donation limits could be adjusted accordingly, so there would be no net change to how much a candidate could aggregate during a single cycle. But, here's the catch. At the end of the cycle, candidates would be required to settle out their accounts for the preceding election. That is, say, a set period of time after Election Day, candidates would be required to pay outstanding bills, repay liabilities, etc., and to close out their account for the cycle. If any money were to remain, the candidate could be permitted to dispose of it as currently permitted by law (if they are not in office and plan not to run again), or to roll funds into a successive campaign account (as in an account to pay political expenses while in office and for re-election next time to the same or another office). If the candidate does transfer the balance to a new account, the roll-over balance would be subject to a tax -- and a hefty tax at that. The money collected from the tax could be earmarked for a specific purpose; for example, to help communities with the costs of special elections, recounts, etc.

The rationale is simple. How would you feel if your favorite charity (pick one, any one) came to your door with a desperate appeal for money, telling you that they really, really, really needed your support? How would you feel if you later found out that your money wasn't used to in fact help end cancer, or feed starving children, or whatever, but that it actually was stashed away in a savings account just to make the charity look big and powerful? Would you feel robbed? After all, you're presumably giving money because you support the charity's cause, not just the charity. Well, in fact, charities are highly-regulated and encouraged not to amass such profits long-term for exactly that reason. We think the same principle should hold true for candidates; when you think of it, they're supposed to be kind of like charities who champion the cause of democracy for the greater good.

It's time to put an end to campaign war chests, once and for all.

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