Corporate Cash: Texas campaign finance laws are vague, but that shouldn't be an invitation for abuse.Editorial Board, Houston Chronicle
July 13, 2004
Travis County grand jury is investigating whether corporate money was used illegally in 2002 to finance successful Republican campaigns for the Texas Legislature. According to Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, the investigation was sparked when political fund-raisers openly stated that corporate donations would be raised, or had been spent, to influence the outcome of Texas House elections.
Texas law has long banned the use of corporate or labor union money in political campaigns. Corporations and unions can pay the administrative expenses of a political action committee -- rent, office equipment and the like. They can also run so-called education or issue campaigns.
The investigation centers around the political action committees for the Texas Association of Business and Texans for a Republican Majority, the latter closely associated with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Sugar Land. Together, the two PACs spent $2.5 million in corporate cash on phone banks, mailings and other activities designed to help selected GOP candidates for the Texas House and make Democratic opponents look bad in the eyes of voters.
PAC defenders say the Texas campaign laws are vague and confusing. They're right. Neither the law nor the Texas Ethics Commission explicitly defines what PAC expenses corporate donations can pay for. However, vagueness should not be an invitation for abuse. Texas law clearly intends to keep corporations from financing political campaigns and purchasing the influence of elected officials.
DeLay recently said he has lawyers "all over the place" to make sure his actions and methods are legal. If his lawyers can certify precisely what he can and cannot do, then the laws are not that vague, after all.
However, if PACs legally can spend millions of corporate dollars to influence political campaigns -- effectively, as PAC officials have stated -- then the law is not vague, but meaningless.
Corporations do not give combined millions of dollars to political action committees unless they hope to advance their financial interests by doing so. If the contributions had no real effect and bought no advantage, they would be a waste of shareholder value.
An internal Enron e-mail suggests that DeLay solicited Enron money to be used in the redistricting effort in Texas. If the vagueness of the law allows corporate dollars into campaigns when the law's intent is to keep them out, the next Legislature has a duty to change the law. Total corporate contributions to a political action committee could be limited to $100,000 or some other arbitrary sum, or they could be banned outright, an action more than justified by the abuses of 2002.