Our Opinion: Campaign spending report exposes flaws in system

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The final campaign spending report before the Sept. 1 Democratic primary election in the 1st Congressional District highlights the flaws in the nation's system of financing elections.

The filing with the Federal Election Commission revealed that 84 percent of Rep. Richard Neal's second-quarter donations came from political action committees or PACs, with most of that money coming from corporations or trade associations. In contrast, nearly all of challenger Alex Morse's contributions came from individual donors, 95 percent of whom gave less than $200. Rep. Neal ended the quarter with $4.2 million in cash on hand compared to Mr. Morse's total of just over $300,000. ("Filings detail PAC money difference in Neal, Morse primary bids," Eagle, July 20.)

The Neal campaign is abiding by the campaign financing rules. The problem is the rules, or the lack of them. A Supreme Court decision equating corporations with people eliminated many restrictions on financing and led to the explosion of PACs and SuperPACs, in which corporations bundle their contributions.

The system benefits incumbents in general and powerful incumbents like Rep. Neal, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, in particular. Rep. Neal has received more donations from corporate PACs than any other House Democrat, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Only Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader, has collected more PAC money.

When asked about his prolific corporate fund-raising in the past, Rep. Neal has responded that no donor buys any influence with him. To cite one example from the second quarter report, we would hope that Mr. Neal would not lift a finger to help tobacco company Altria Group, which contributed the maximum $10,000. (Altria was formerly known as Philip Morris, a brand name that had become as cancerous as cigarettes.) However, that $10,000 goes into the campaign coffers to sell the candidate to voters in the Berkshires and the rest of the 1st Congressional District. The Neal campaign spent $300,000 on TV and media ads in the second quarter - Mr. Morse did not spend a dime on TV ads.

The money spent by outside groups exposes another dramatic flaw in the system. The nonprofit Fight Corporate Monopolies spent $150,000 in the second quarter on anti-Neal ads attacking the congressman for allegedly putting the interests of corporate donors over the interests of constituents. As a nonprofit, the group doesn't have to identify its donors. No campaign donors should be given anonymity, and a group like Fight Corporate Monopolies, which professes to fight against undue campaign influence, should identify its donors voluntarily.

With no Republicans in the race, the winner of the Sept. 1 primary will be elected to office. We urge the winner to pursue campaign finance reform in the next term, although that is idealistic. The Supreme Court has bound the hands of reformists and there is little incentive for any incumbent to fix a system that so clearly benefits incumbents.

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