A Ban on Campaign War Chests

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 4 2011 10:59 AM

A Ban on Campaign War Chests

Freshman Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., has dropped a bill that's A) doomed and B) a reminder of how mangled the campaign finance system is. The Competitive Elections Act of 2011, right here, would prohibit incumbents from holding on to their money in between elections. The election cycle starts. They spend. The cycle ends. The extra money can't be spent on electioneering. (This "does not govern how candidates use any excess money left in their campaign accounts," says Woodall's spokeswoman. "They can still do with the money what is currently allowable under the law.")

An authorized committee of a candidate for election for the office of Senator or the office of Representative in, or Delegate or Resident Commissioner to, the Congress may not make any expenditure of funds in support of the candidate’s campaign for election that were not deposited in the account of the committee during the election cycle for the office involved.
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The legislation actually includes some wiggle room for candidates running against self-funders, to assure that a wave of wealthy people don't just take advantage of this to ride the No Labels or America Elects banner into office. But it obviously encourages self-funders, too. Take away the incumbent's war chest and you take away his ability to scare people off. The fact that the excess money isn't governed is a problem, because otherwise you can do something about the phenomneon of zombie accounts. Former Congressman Joe Kennedy II hasn't run for anything since 1996, but as of today there's still $2,141,147 in his campaign account, to be disbursed on... whatever. Evan Bayh retired in 2010, but there's still $10,184,670 in a campaign account that Democrats thought they were filling in order to keep a Senate seat or win a gubernatorial office. No dice: He can sit on it until he feels like spending it.

The big question: How does this effect political corruption? It's a fun thought experiment, and you can say it makes that problem worse. The current political fundraising regime does, theoretically, allow incumbents to build up a hoard and ignore fundraising calls. That's theory, though. The reality is that they still have to do it; the downside of Woodall's idea is that it could give high-dollar business interest donors, PACs, and Super PACs more influence than they already have. But it's one more thought experiment than you get out of the average freshman's legislation.

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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