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Why do politicians give each other campaign cash?
By JIM WALLS
March 14, 2011 — Ethics reformers now have a bill to push in the Georgia Legislature. But, at least for this year, it looks like they’ll be pushing uphill.
Senate Bill 248, introduced last week by 13 Democrats and zero Republicans, would tighten ethics laws three ways, by:
- Capping transfers from one campaign fund to others at $10,000 per election cycle;
- Limiting the value of lobbyists’ gifts to lawmakers to $100;
- Imposing a “revolving door” ban to bar full-time appointees of the governor from lobbying for a year after they leave office.
Without Republican support, of course, the bill goes nowhere. In the Senate, the GOP appears to have chosen a different path for 2011 (more on that a little later).
Two of the proposals seem problematic: The gift limit could be easily circumvented, and the loose legal definition of a lobbyist could undermine the revolving-door restrictions.
But the third proposal, limiting campaign-to-campaign donations, strikes directly at the mutual back-scratching that is intrinsic to the Georgia General Assembly. Current campaign disclosure requirements would also make such contributions very difficult to hide.
“Our stance all along has been that it’s empire-building, plain and simple,” said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia. “When you’re allowed to amass that much money … it’s being given out not to help someone win but to gain influence over someone.”
To illustrate the point, I will have to throw some numbers at you; please resist your eyeballs’ understandable urge to glaze over.
Legislators can accumulate campaign donations even if they have no campaigns to run; the most powerful can build substantial sums, primarily with checks from business interests.
Glenn Richardson, in five years as speaker of the House, collected $1.6 million but breezed to re-election twice with no opposition. When a sex scandal forced him to resign in 2009, he took the remaining $220,000 with him, transferring it to a political action committee under his control.
With a $10,000 limit on transfers, the six top Republicans in the House could have given no more than $60,000 in campaign donations in 2009 and 2010; instead, they spread $670,000 around to fellow Republican candidates and causes. Over in the Senate, the top three Republican leaders would have had to stop making political donations at $30,000, rather than the $240,000 they gave during the last election cycle.
In particular, those three Senate leaders — president pro tem Tommie Williams, majority leader Chip Rogers and caucus chair Bill Cowsert — gave $44,700 to 12 freshmen senators right around the time of a critical Nov. 5 caucus vote. The votes of the freshmen, comprising one-third of the caucus, were considered key to passage of the “power-sharing” deal that stripped Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle of his ability to make committee assignments.
Many of the contributions came in clusters in the days preceding that vote. Williams wrote eight checks for a total of $9,000 on Oct. 29. Cowsert gave out 11 checks for $20,500 at a Nov. 1 dinner that the Senate leaders hosted for the freshmen at Morton’s Steakhouse.
The leaders and the freshmen talked about the upcoming caucus vote as part of a “wide-ranging conversation” that night, Cowsert said last week. But he rejected any suggestion that the donations were intended to win the freshmen’s support.
“No campaign contributions were made by me, and I don’t think by anybody else, as an inducement to vote a certain way on any issue,” he said.
Cowsert said he feels his job as caucus chairman obliges him to support all caucus members financially when he can.
“We’re subject to the same limits everyone else is,” he said. “It’s not an out-of-control system.”
Using campaign money to cement relationships between lawmakers is nothing new.
Democratic Reps. Terry Coleman and Larry Walker did so when they were competing in 2002 to become speaker of the House. Between them, the two men doled out $231,000 in donations in the months leading up to the caucus vote. Coleman, who gave about $37,000 more than Walker, won the job.
“I don’t know if it helped me any, frankly,” Walker told the AJC at the time. “But I think if I had not done it, it would have hurt me.”
Now, as Senate Democrats try to curtail that practice, it appears they will have to wait at least one more year for a vote.
Senate Ethics Chairman John Crosby said last week he’s appointing a five-member subcommittee to conduct hearings later this year on a broad range of suggested ethics reforms. The subcommittee chairman, Josh McKoon of Columbus, said he believes in a global approach to the issue rather than the “serial legislating” of recent years.
“The mistake that we have made in the past … is that we legislate in reaction to a singular event as opposed to looking at the entire code,” McKoon said.
McKoon said he hopes the extra time and study will help his subcommittee draft a “comprehensive” ethics reform package for 2012.