Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Cantor Raised How Much?

Reading my Times-Dispatch on Saturday, I was drawn to the lead story in the Metro section, “Cantor to keep donated money.” The gist of the story was that Seventh District Representative Eric Cantor was not going to return $2,300 in campaign contributions he received from Robert I. Toussie. If you remember, Toussie’s son was pardoned by President Bush last week and then his pardon was revoked when Bush learned that Toussie senior was a major contributor to the Republican Party. I don’t care too much about the Toussie issue. If Toussie merited a pardon before the disclosure of his father’s largess, I would assume he still merited one after the disclosure.

What did open my eyes was this statement in the story: “Cantor’s campaign raised $4.5 million this election cycle.” Did I read that right? Four point five million dollars? Why would an incumbent running for re-election in a safe Republican district need to raise $4.5 million dollars in campaign contributions? Considering that he was running against a political unknown, I am sure that Mr. Cantor could have easily been re-elected without spending a cent on his campaign.

Reader, you know that since I am a Democrat and mostly a liberal I am not a great fan of Eric Cantor. I’ve never met the guy, but I just don’t like his politics. As I have expressed here, and in a letter to the TD back in 2006, I think that Cantor is a big part of the cause for the problems that we face in this country after eight years of Republican governance. But that is not what this is about. What this is about is the outrageous campaign finance laws that permit members of Congress to raise obscenely large amounts of money and use them for just about any purpose they care to.

The federal campaign finance laws are administered by the Federal Election Commission. In the regulations the Commission has issued to implement the laws there is a Part 113 entitled “Use of Campaign Accounts for Non-Campaign Purposes.” I would have hoped that these regulations would put severe limits on what campaign funds can be used for. Instead, they seem to legitimize every use of the funds other than the member of Congress putting it directly into his pocket or her purse.

So what kind of things does our Mr. Cantor spend campaign funds on? First, he spends on salaries and benefits for a staff. (These are all based on financial statements filed with the Federal Election Commission by “Cantor For Congress.”) From the financial statements we cannot tell whether these expenses were for a separate campaign staff or to augment federal funding for Mr. Cantor’s Washington or Seventh District staffs. (Please keep in mind, dear reader, that I am not suggesting that Mr. Cantor is doing anything illegal. He spent a significant amount of his campaign funds for legal consulting, so I must assume he got good advice.)

Mr. Cantor spent big bucks on airline fares, hotel rooms, car rentals and other expenses of travel in many places around the country. I cannot tell whether these trips were related to his re-election campaign or his campaign to become Minority Whip. Mr. Cantor also spent a significant amount on catering for various events. Again, many of these were neither within the congressional district nor in Washington so it is hard to tell how they related to the campaign.

Mr. Cantor’s campaign spent a lot on fundraising consultants. Payments to G.R. Seppala and Associates, in Wayzata, Minnesota, for fundraising consulting amounted to over $85,000 during the campaign. (This amounts to more than Mr. Cantor’s opponent spent on the whole campaign.) To me this suggests that Cantor for Congress is more a money producing entity than an election campaign committee. When you pay that kind of money to one consultant, you are obviously expecting a rather big return on your investment (like maybe $4.5 million).

Mr. Cantor also spent a big chunk of his campaign funds on what I call “win friends and influence people” expenditures. He contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the election campaigns of other Republicans around the country. These are the kinds of contributions you surely want to be making if you’re running for Minority Whip. He sent money to the National Republican Congressional Campaign, the Nevada Republican Party and local campaign committees. One of the larger contributions was $5000 to the John Doolittle Legal Defense Fund. (Mr. Doolittle, one of Mr. Cantor’s former fellow Republicans in the House, is charged with corruption and is in need of lots of money for his defense.)

So, trusted reader, what are we to make of this? We have a campaign finance system that allows representatives and senators to raise huge amounts of money and use it for purposes not directly related to their re-election campaigns. Is this the way we should be electing our public officials? We need the Congress to go back and look at the campaign finance laws again and impose restrictions on themselves. Write to you senators and representative and urge them to fix a system that seems out of control.

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