Iowa legislature pretends to care about money in politics

On March 18 the Iowa House voted 96 to 0 to pass a bill banning candidates from using campaign funds to pay themselves or immediate family members a salary. This measure closes the so-called “Ed Fallon loophole,” named because Fallon received $13,750 from his gubernatorial campaign between June and November 2006 after losing the Democratic primary.

The Iowa Senate approved Senate File 50 in February (also unanimously). Governor Chet Culver is expected to sign the bill and may have done so already, but I did not find confirmation of that on the governor’s website.

Looking at the text of Senate File 50, I noticed that it defines “immediate family member” as “the spouse or dependent child of a candidate.”

I’ve been told that at least 20 members of the Iowa House (including Democrats and Republicans) employ either their spouse or child as a clerk. Apparently it is fine for spouses and children of state legislators to draw a salary from taxpayer dollars, but it becomes a terrible ethical problem for a candidate to draw a salary from money voluntarily contributed by supporters.

I have more to say about this farcical bill after the jump.

First, let’s not pretend that this bill prevents a candidate from running for office for the purposes of enriching his or her family. The bill prohibits paying a salary only to the candidate, the candidate’s spouse, or dependent children. Grown children who are no longer claimed as dependents, siblings, parents, cousins, nieces and nephews or other relatives of candidates may still be put on campaign payrolls.

This bill is about one thing: sticking it to Ed Fallon. Longtime Bleeding Heartland readers will remember that reports of Fallon’s salary from his 2006 campaign only aroused interest at the statehouse because Fallon challenged Congressman Leonard Boswell in the 2008 Democratic primary for Iowa’s third district. Boswell used this issue to question Fallon’s ethics, and the Iowa Senate approved a bill to close the “Fallon loophole” last April, but the measure died in the Iowa House.

The Des Moines Register’s editorial board came out against this legislation last year:

A thistle to Democratic legislators who would bar candidates from drawing a salary from campaign donors. This bill (aimed at Ed Fallon, who is challenging Leonard Boswell) is an Incumbent Protection Act. Challengers who give up day jobs to run for office must fend for themselves or be independently wealthy. Meanwhile, the taxpayers support or subsidize incumbents. If contributors want to spend their own money for the care and feeding of a candidate, it is no business of the Iowa Legislature.

Speaking of how taxpayers support and subsidize incumbents, I want to underscore what I mentioned above. Many state legislators who voted to close the “Fallon loophole” hire their own spouses and children as clerks, supplementing their family’s income on the taxpayer’s dime.

If Senate File 50 were one part of a comprehensive campaign finance reform plan, I wouldn’t be so bothered. But of course, we aren’t going to see any significant changes in our current system of funding elections anytime soon. Fallon made the same point in his response to last week’s news:

“The Legislature seems intent on making politics the domain of the rich and powerful. Low-income and middle-income people who want to run for office are already at a huge disadvantage. If a candidate receives a modest stipend from his or her campaign account, what business is that to state government? It’s between that candidate and her or his donors.”

“If legislative leaders were really concerned about money in politics,” continued Fallon, “they’d pass Voter-Owned Iowa Clean Elections (VOICE). But apparently, they’re more interested in symbols than substance.”

Click here for background on the VOICE act, which is backed by a large majority of political donors in Iowa. The non-profit organization Public Campaign explains here how voluntary public financing works.

The VOICE act is modeled on a system that works well and has strong bipartisan support in other states, including Maine and Arizona. But Democratic leaders in the Iowa House and in the Iowa Senate are dead-set against clean elections. Advocates for public financing of campaigns couldn’t find anyone in the Iowa House to introduce VOICE this session.

Our statehouse leaders seem to enjoy the flood of special-interest money coming their way. (Republicans are no better; when they controlled the Iowa legislature, they didn’t let real campaign finance reform see the light of day either.)

In Iowa, people and PACs can give as much as they want to political campaigns. At least 18 different individuals have given more to Culver’s campaign committee than the total salary Fallon drew from his gubernatorial campaign. If you search contributions to Iowa legislative leaders here, you’ll see that they have received many large donations from PACs and individuals as well.

It’s business as usual for officials to solicit corporate sponsorships for a conference on public policy in Iowa.

Fallon called out the legalized corruption that pervades our politics in a Des Moines Register editorial a few months ago. Excerpt:

We don’t want to believe our elected officials can be bought. But as someone who served for 14 years in the Iowa House, I say with confidence that what big money wants, big money usually gets. Rank-and-file lawmakers may be well-intentioned but often are strong-armed by legislative leaders beholden to corporate donors and special interests. As a result, the most pressing challenges of our time – climate change, budgetary reform, health care, farm policy, to name a few – see practically no progress year after year.

What’s the bigger threat to the integrity of our politics: Fallon’s campaign salary, or the excessive influence of wealthy individuals and PACs?

You be the judge.

  • Power Protectionists

    Once the Dems scored the tri-fecta, they have done everything in their power, including overextending it, to protect their political stranglehold. When Gronstal was called out by VOICE advocates in the statehouse rotunda, claiming he was nothing more than a Republican in sheep’s clothing, his reaction, dropping an f-bomb on the activist, struck a nerve for obvious reasons.

    I’ve been disappointed and unimpressed with Dem leadership and their protectionism, especailly when it comes to protecting Blue Dog Boswell.

    The only thing that will probably help them maintain their tri-fecdta in 2010 is the GOP’s own discombobulation. But 2012 may be another story.

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