We are about four years ahead of schedule for the next statewide “-gate” scandal, but we’re hopeful that “Campaign-spendinggate” is about to follow Porngate (2015) and Bonusgate (2007).
An investigation by the Caucus and Spotlight PA found House and Senate candidates across the state lavishly spent millions of dollars between 2016 and 2018 — on foreign trips, sports tickets, limos, country club memberships and more — and kept details from the public on how that spending was related to winning elections.
While Republican Senate President Joe Scarnati led the pack with obscured spending of $245,000, this practice proves to be a bipartisan effort, with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle using other people’s money that in one case included the purchase of a DNA test.
The practice is legal, part of a Wild West of state campaign laws that are some of the most lax in the nation. There are no contribution limits and no explicit ban on spending campaign cash for personal use. The State Department requires that spending be used to influence the outcome of an election but has no enforcement authority.
Campaign finance rules are up to the legislature itself to change — a level of self-policing (and self-serving) that is unacceptable. Numerous attempts to reform the state’s campaign finance laws have gone nowhere. That Philadelphia’s campaign finance laws are a model should tell you everything.
The fact that state candidates are not legally mandated to account for every dime spent from their election coffers should not mitigate the outrage. It should strengthen it.
The fact that this isn’t public money should also not mitigate the outrage. At the heart of this profligacy is the general sense that lawmakers are entitled to other people’s money to do with what they want — and the power to hide their actions. It’s a fair bet that if that’s their attitude toward campaign donations, that will be their attitude with any money that comes before them — including the public dollars that fund the state budget. The Bonusgate scandal was also about elections, with officials paying state workers for campaign work using public money. That scandal resulted in 25 arrests, 21 convictions, and many booted out of office.
The encroachment of big dollars into campaigns is a big problem for all voters. The more money that flows into campaigns, the more chance for the corruption of democracy. The best antidote is sunlight — and public outrage.
Will the public find outrage over this scandal? They can and should let lawmakers know they demand serious reform that gets self-dealing and other people’s money out of the election system. Donors should close their checkbooks until they know how their money is being spent.
Shame is not likely to be a big motivator for change in the General Assembly. The day after The Inquirer spending report appeared, lawmakers rushed through a change in a bill that would actually make it harder to find out how candidates are spending campaign money.
This appeared to be a bridge too far even for them and the following day, they reversed course. Change is possible, if enough of us demand it.