The recent Virginia legislative and local elections proved anew Will Rogers' observation that "Politics has got so expensive it takes a lot of money just to get beat with." Preliminary figures show that the average candidate in a contested house of delegates district spent more than $43,000, and the average contested state senate candidate expended a stunning $175,000. Compared with just four years ago, this represents an increase of about 150 percent for house contenders and 350 percent for senate candidates.
Nor are skyrocketing costs the only problem with campaign finance in Virginia. A sampler of the political money horrors includes:
Loopholes exist in disclosure laws that are big enough to drive an armored truck through. Political parties do not have to reveal the sources of their contributions, and they have become the conduits for hundreds of thousands of dollars in laundered gifts from individuals who do not wish to show up on the candidates' disclosure reports.
Incomplete and sometimes nonexistent reporting of campaign donations and expenditures is tolerated. Few candidates bother to list "in kind" contributions (i.e., noncash assistance, such as staff services, mailings, polls, etc.), though they are required by law to do so, and the in-kind gifts frequently are substantial. And some political organizations apparently never trouble themselves to file at all. The absence of any auditing or standard enforcement mechanisms makes penalties for noncompliance with the law almost theoretical.
Absolutely unlimited contributions by individuals and groups are allowed. In 1985, for example, a wealthy developer and builder from Virginia Beach, R. G. Moore, gave more than half a million dollars to five candidates for statewide office; Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gerald Baliles alone received more than $250,000. The potential for corruption is always present when "fat cats" are permitted to exercise such disproportionate influence.
Some agreeable solutions to these matters, such as requiring broadcasters to give candidates free advertising time, are beyond the purview of state government. Other proposals, including a system of full public financing, are unlikely to be passed in Virginia. Still other ideas, foremost among them an overall spending limit for each candidate, are unwise.
Spending limits generally work to the advantage of incumbents rather than challengers because challengers must usually spend a great deal to match the name recognition of their better-known opponents. Since spending limits reduce competition, they are especially unwelcome in Virginia, given the state's abysmally low rate of legislative contests. This year almost 93 percent of the incumbent state legislators who sought another term were reelected, and nearly two-thirds of them were not even opposed by the other party.
Granted, one reason for the feeble state of competition may be the dramatic rise in campaign costs. Many potentially good candidates are understandably reluctant to run when faced with the daunting prospect of big-time fund raising. So what can reasonably -- and realistically -- be done to ease their burden and to correct other campaign financing deficiencies?
First of all, a state income tax credit (either 50 percent or, ideally, 100 percent) ought to be enacted for individual contributions of $100 or less to parties and candidates. A tax credit would make it considerably easier to raise campaign money, and it would stimulate precisely the kind of gifts -- small amounts from many individuals -- that would generate the fewest concerns about undue influence and produce the greatest benefits in broad-based participation for the political system.
Second, all loopholes in the disclosure laws ought to be closed. Political parties should fully report their contributions and expenditures several times a year. Partial reporting just of donations specifically earmarked for certain candidates would not work; such an arrangement only encourages the parties to engage in wink-and-nod shell games.
Third, the campaign finance reporting laws currently on the books should be rigorously enforced. Random audits of reports from organizations and candidates should be conducted after each election.
Finally, contribution limits for individual and group gifts should be enacted. Caps of $10,000 per election for a statewide candidate, $4,000 for a state senate candidate and $2,000 for a house of delegate candidate seem appropriate. The amounts should also be indexed for inflation.
Commendably, the governor has indicated his intention to propose a reform package for campaign financing. If his reforms are well targeted, they could prevent a scandal that is waiting to happen in Virginia. -- Larry Sabato is an associate professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia.