The charges laid out in the federal indictment of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich are stunning, but not wholly unexpected when considering our state’s unregulated campaign finance system. Illinois, unlike most other states, places almost no restrictions on who can donate to ...
The charges laid out in the federal indictment of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich are stunning, but not wholly unexpected when considering our state’s unregulated campaign finance system.
Illinois, unlike most other states, places almost no restrictions on who can donate to candidates or how much money an individual or group can give. That’s why we formed CHANGE Illinois, a coalition of community, faith, labor, and business leaders working to restore accountability to Illinois government through campaign finance reform.
It is this broken campaign system that has served as the breeding ground for the over 1,000 Illinois public officials and government employees who have faced corruption charges over the last three decades.
Our limitless campaign finance system is inherently problematic because it encourages candidates to bypass the people and fill their war chests with as many big checks as possible. As such, wealthy special interests are able to overpower smaller ones, buying themselves a seat at the table during policy negotiations and purchasing undue influence with politicians eager to keep their jobs and offices.
Even worse, corrupt individuals can exploit this free-for-all system and take it to grotesque extremes. Blagojevich is a perfect example: Federal investigators contend that he attempted to extract five-figure campaign contributions from interest groups and businesses in exchange for official state action.
Because Illinois’ campaign finance system is based on disclosure, not regulation, it’s difficult to know how often such corrupt transactions are carried out. While large donations may be suspect, they are not necessarily against the law unless a direct quid pro quo is involved. We do know that corruption is taking place, though, as evidenced by frequent special investigations and prosecutions.
The Illinois General Assembly must immediately enact a reasonable set of limits on campaign contributions and transfers between political committees to protect the public from future abuses of power. Limits will help to prevent corruption by making it more difficult for unethical officials to manipulate the system for their own gain. While it’s unlikely that limits will completely eradicate corruption, campaign finance regulation will make wrongdoing that much more difficult to carry out.
Perhaps most importantly, contribution limits will return Illinois voters to their place at the table, making it far more difficult for special interests to trump the people’s interests.
When we look around the country, we see that Illinois’ unregulated campaign system is a real anomaly. Indeed, the federal government and 45 other states have in place their own systems to regulate elections and campaign finance – rules that have been tailored to fit their respective political landscapes. Many of these systems were created in the wake of Watergate as a way for governments to protect against wrongdoing and misuse of office.
Illinois leaders, meanwhile, have ignored the need to enact campaign finance reform, arguing that restrictions on political giving will not prevent corruption. Instead, these officials have preserved the status quo, even after some of the state’s most powerful politicians have faced indictment after indictment.
With one governor in jail and another under indictment, it is apparent that our state’s unregulated system simply isn’t working. It is not enough to throw the bums out of office, we must change the system. As the recent Illinois Reform Commission report calling for contribution limits proclaimed: “The time for action is now.”
The time has come for Illinois to break clean with its corruption-laden past and eliminate the system that has helped to bring so many dishonest officials and politicians into power.
Under a limits system, there will be less of a risk that an officeholder will cast votes or steer policy at the request of a campaign donor. Contribution caps will also protect officeholders from extortionate demands from entities seeking favorable state action. Limits will have the added benefit of helping to rebuild the public’s trust in government and curb the perception that all politicians are crooks, bent on scamming the system.
Blagojevich’s embarrassing arrest and ouster shows that Illinoisans can no longer afford to ignore the grave impact campaign donations have on our political process and government. His arrest should serve as a wake up call to everyone in Illinois – both members of the public and members of the General Assembly – that we need campaign finance reform now.
But Illinois lawmakers are not likely to pass reforms unless we demand they do.
Please join us at a rally at the Thompson Center at 10am on Thursday April 9th to demand an end to corruption in Illinois politics. And have your friends and family call (800) 719-3020, a toll-free hotline sponsored by the reform coalition CHANGE Illinois, to be connected with your state legislators. Our voices can have an impact!
Cindi Canary is director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.