Peter Callaghan: Defanging campaign cash watchdog is politics, not policy

Staff WriterJanuary 28, 2014 

When there is no apparent public policy reason for a bill that looks a lot like political revenge, it is usually safe to conclude that it is the latter.

That’s the case with a bill out of the Majority Coalition Caucus in the state Senate to “depoliticize” the Public Disclosure Commission by turning it over to political leaders of the Legislature.

See what I mean about lacking a public policy reason? How does the state’s campaign and lobbying watchdog become less political by letting the political leaders of that hyper-political body appoint the members?

Oh wait, it gets worse. One of the co-sponsors said the idea was to mimic the structure of the state Redistricting Commission. But if there is a political body in Washington that is more about politics than the Legislature, it is the every-10-years Redistricting Commission. At least members of the Legislature take off their partisan hats every now and then. At least the Legislature considers what is good for the state as a whole every now and then.

The Redistricting Commission is about little but partisan politics, even though good government groups help it masquerade as an independent panel because it is slightly better than bad old days. In truth and in practice, the redistricting panel disguises its politics.

Here is how Senate Bill 6323 would work: The five current commissioners would be canned and the four caucus leaders would each appoint a commissioner. Those four would try to agree on a fifth person to serve as the chair but if they couldn’t, the commission would consist of two Democrats and two Republicans. With three votes needed to do anything, they likely would do nothing.

A watchdog that does no barking is pretty much a dream scenario for politicians.

But hasn’t the Redistricting Commission always gotten consensus on new congressional and legislative maps? Sure, but unlike a restructured PDC, the Redistricting Commission strikes a deal by horsetrading. First, both parties’ are allowed to protect incumbents in safer-and-safer districts. Then the partisan commissioners barter for what is left over – ending up with just a handful of truly competitive districts.

Because they were appointed by one of the four caucuses, these commissioners see the state as either red or blue, as representing the person who appointed them. They worry about communities of interest, political subdivision lines and racial makeup mostly to satisfy federal court rulings and never at the risk of not serving party interests.

The work of the PDC is not simply an extension of partisan political battles. Much of it involves policing lobbyists or watching local government elections that are often nonpartisan. Current commissioners are appointed by governors who must follow criteria to balance the group. Appointees are confirmed by the Senate, providing a check not found in the MCC plan.

So why would this bill get serious consideration? In a press briefing last week, leaders revealed a more-logical explanation. They are unhappy that a complaint about a liberal donor who might have been trying to sway a special election in the 26th District was not only resolved in the donor’s favor but resolved quickly.

Leaders said it showed political bias because the PDC usually waits until after the election. That is true, but such delay is a problem and not a virtue. Waiting leaves the accused guilty until proven innocent and leaves voters with no means of judging campaign finance violations.

As described by an early advocate, Jolene Unsoeld, the core mission of the PDC is: “Who gave, who got, how much.” Waiting until after Election Day to get that information to voters lets campaigns benefit from meritless accusations on one side and knowing violations on the other.

If the PDC is striving to speed up its actions, it should be praised, not punished. That SB 6323 appears bent on doing the latter paints it as an exercise not of good public policy but political mischief-making – something the MCC pledged to avoid in its manifesto:

“We commit ourselves to establishing a style of lawmaking that promotes policy over politics, an approach seen all too rarely in politics today.”

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ thenewstribune.com @CallaghanPeter

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