Sunday Column: Time to Drop Campaign Contribution Limits?

The limitations on contributions to political candidates in our fair state have become so meaningless that maybe it’s time to just get rid of them.
The thought is inspired by last week’s Registry of Election Finance decision to dismiss contentions that two political action committees violated the limits law. The facts were similar, but the case involving Truth Matters PAC perhaps is the best illustration.
Andrew Miller Jr., a politically astute Nashvillian of substantial wealth, started talking up establishment of a PAC with friends sharing his views a year or so ago. The views, it seems, are more conservative than those of many Republicans, and Miller has become known as “a RINO hunter.” Or, perhaps more properly, as a supplier of ammunition to RINO-hunting candidates. RINO, of course, stands for “Republican in name only.”
Truth Matters was set up in July with Miller giving the PAC $71,000. With the Aug. 2 Republican primary looming, the PAC — which consisted then of Miller and his brother, who was listed as treasurer — promptly distributed money to conservative Republican legislative candidates trying to unseat suspected RINOs or, in other cases, prevent their election.

The contributions law says no individual can give more than $1,400 per election to a legislative candidate. Miller had already “maxed out” as an individual donor to eight of the candidates by giving each $1,400.
The PAC thus sent the RINO hunters more money from Miller — and only Miller, since no one else had contributed to Truth Matters at that point — than the law allows. This was noted in the media, and the Registry staff concluded that, by gosh, this just might, conceivably, possibly, tentatively be a case of a PAC acting as an illegal conduit to candidates.
For the 13-day period covered in the PAC’s first disclosure report, this was undeniably true. Miller’s money — thousands more than legally allowed — was sent to the selected candidates. But, then, well, there’s the way our state law on limits and such is written and a rule adopted by the Registry board that interprets that law. On a 4-2 vote, the board decided to dismiss the charges.
Without getting into the arcane details, the decision was almost certainly correct. Two of the board members who voted to dismiss subsequently called for revisiting the rule that came into play and maybe changing it. The panel unanimously agreed to talk about it at the next Registry meeting.
Fundamentally, though, Miller simply made an innocent mistake in failing to follow the specific rules for dodging campaign limits. As he acknowledged, he got into a rush to get that money out to candidates so they could use it before the primary election while others who had promised to donate to the PAC were dragging their feet and while he and his brother were dealing with a parent’s terminal illness.
Had he gotten you and me to kick in $50 each, or one like-minded friend to give $1,000 or so, the dodge would have been perfectly legal. Others did donate to Truth Matters after the primary, fulfilling promises made months earlier.
As things stand now, the contribution limits can be easily and effectively ignored if you’ve got the money and a willingness to set up a PAC or two or three. Or, under a fairly recent change in the law, you’re a corporation that wants to give corporate money to candidates. It’s like the provision of current law that now says lobbyists can’t give to candidates — probably unconstitutional if anyone challenged it. But, of course, there’s no need because lobbyists can give if they set up a PAC.
The bottom line is that the rich and politically astute folks have no effective limit on how much they can give to politicians, unless they’re make an innocent mistake by getting in a rush or something. At the same time, there is a new trend to dodging disclosure of where political money comes from. We have state PACs that, in listing donors, simply report that a national group gave them the money. Who gave to the national group? We’ll never know.
Imposing campaign contribution limits was a noble, well-intentioned notion. It has not worked, and average folks don’t seem to care. Repealing all limits, if coupled with a mandatory and instantly reported full disclosure of where the money came from would be better than the shell game now being played. Truth matters.
With or without PACs.

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