Missouri lawmakers promise a close look at ethics reform this session. The interplay of lobbying, secret outside spending and obscenely large donations has apparently drawn the attention of legislators on both sides of the aisle, with firm promises to clean up the mess in Jefferson City.
Don’t get your hopes up. With so many special interests involved — and with so much cash sloshing around — it may be in everyone’s interest to talk about ethics reform without actually accomplishing anything this year. Sen. Claire McCaskill suggested that possible outcome on Monday.
If the legislature is serious, though, it could look at one of the more dangerous ethical practices in politics: candidates who lend money to their own campaigns and recoup the loans after Election Day.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said there can be no constitutional limit on how much candidates can spend on their own campaigns. “The First Amendment simply cannot tolerate (restricting) the freedom of a candidate to speak without legislative limit on behalf of his own candidacy,” the justices have said.
But candidate loans might be another matter. To understand why this is important, let’s look across the state line to Kansas.
Last fall, Gov. Sam Brownback loaned his campaign committee $200,000. That debt was still on the books at the end of the year.
The Brownback committee can raise money to repay that loan. New donors, though, surely know their contributions won’t go for new ads or phone calls — Brownback can’t run again.
Instead, the new donations go the committee so it can repay Brownback. The governor’s personal financial health is partially dependent on campaign donors, including those doing business with the government.
The possibility of impropriety is enormous. Candidates can loan themselves thousand of dollars before the election, then recoup the cash from lobbyists and other contributors after being sworn in.
Here’s the easy fix: Candidates could give their campaigns as much as they want. Candidates who loan their campaigns money, though, should be required to repay the debt before Election Day.
Any debt left after that date would become an uncapped self-contribution, and the candidates would have to absorb the loss.
Any legislature grappling with ethics reform must confront the size and nature of campaign contributions. Limiting candidate loans would be a good place to start.