In Defense of PA’s “Broken” Campaign Finance System

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I don’t entirely disagree with Colleen’s post earlier today on using the proposed gift ban legislation to further foment campaign finance reform in Pennsylvania. However, I do think that there are under-appreciated aspects Pennsylvania’s “wild west” system of funding campaigns.

Pennsylvania’s lack of caps on individual contributions for state level candidates gets a lot of negative attention. However, I don’t think our state system of limitless contributions is necessarily a bad thing, and here are my quick thoughts on why I don’t mind that particular aspect of our “broken” system:

At the federal level, wealthy donors can only contribute $2,600 to candidates per election cycle (so, $2,600 for the primary portion of the year and $2,600 for the general, or $5,200 per year). Because of those limits and the current state of federal campaign finance law after Citizens United, wealthy donors are incentivized to make their large contributions to Super PACs where they can better keep their donations in the dark and out of public scrutiny.

In Pennsylvania, however, wealthy donors can and do give vast amounts (sometimes $100,000+ contributions) directly to candidates, as we have seen in the gubernatorial race. And because those donations must be disclosed, we know exactly where the candidate is getting their money from—in contrast to independent expenditures by dark money groups.

In essence, we can hold Pennsylvania candidates more accountable. If you’re like me and think that money will make it into the political sphere no matter what, we should at least have a system where we can hold candidates’ feet to the fire when people with vast sums of money send them blockbuster checks.

That’s how we know about Corbett’s crony corporate contributors, and it is how we can figure out which special interest groups are going in big for each Democratic candidate.

I’m not embarassed to say that I agree with Mitt Romney on this issue.

While on the campaign trail in 2012, Romney was asked about the ads put out by Super PACs that showed him in a negative light. Romney said “I would like to get rid of the campaign finance laws that were put in place” and “let people make contributions they want to make to campaigns, let campaigns then take responsibility for their own words and not have this strange situation we have.”

Because Pennsylvania allows such large individual contributions, we don’t have the “strange situation” of complete unaccountability through massive independent expenditures that we have at the federal level.

Is it perfect? Hell no! Never has been, never will be. I’m only suggesting that Pennsylvania’s “broken” system might only need a few fixes instead of being thrown out entirely.

[I’d be curious to hear from campaigners/practitioners who have fundraising experience at both the federal and state level. Comment below, or feel free to email me at]

About Jake Sternberger

Jake Sternberger was a contributing writer at Keystone Politics from 2011 to 2014.
This entry was posted in Ethics, Issues, Open Government, State Politics.

6 Responses to In Defense of PA’s “Broken” Campaign Finance System

  1. Tim Potts says:

    Frankly, I find it appalling that our only choices seem to between corrupt and illegal.

  2. Tsuyoshi says:

    The legal rationale for donation limits is that a small enough limit will prevent “corruption”. But this only considers the case of a single donor. When there is a large enough group of motivated donors, every politician around will notice. The best example of this is probably the “pro-Israel” donors. Pretty much everyone in Congress, no matter how many pro-Israel voters they actually have in their district or state, is fanatical about adopting the Likud party line.

    But the key thing is, they mostly do this out of fear. It is not that they are necessarily trying to get all the pro-Israel money out there, but they are trying to prevent a challenger from being able to do so. And if all the pro-Israel money was spent independently rather than given directly to candidates, it wouldn’t change the political calculus much.

    I think the real problem with donation limits is that if you have a limit of something like $500 or $2000, in order to run an effective campaign you need to spend a lot of time in scattershot fundraising (i.e. call time). And even if you put the limit at $200, most regular people just can’t afford to donate that much. So all it’s really doing is levelling the playing field for the upper middle class versus the upper class. Putting the limit even lower than that would make an effective campaign impossible to finance, and only people with preexisting name recognition would be able to win an election.

    The best thing to do really is get campaigns publicly financed. And there are things you could do to reduce the cost of campaigns: reduce the number of elective offices, make districts small enough that a doorbelling campaign is feasible, reduce the number of off-year elections, move to mail voting, introduce compulsory voting. etc.

  3. Rather than call it the “wild west” approach, I would say that freedom abounds in the Pennsylvania system. The “reformers” want to create a system that only serves the interest of poltical professionals, they’re just not honest enough to admit it.
    Support your favorite candidates as you wish, while you still can!

  4. Pingback: 3/26 Morning Buzz | PoliticsPA

  5. steventodd says:

    Public campaign finance is the only solution. Until we do that, there will be no democratic republic. It will be representation for those few who can afford it. All other efforts are tweaks on how that money gets from those few to the indebted (therefore, obligated) candidates.

  6. Nathan Shrader says:

    Jake: I agree with many of the things you said in this post. I have been involved in many state, local, and county races in Pennsylvania and I support maintaining the status quo when it comes to campaign finance restrictions and regulations. I see no reason to restrict the size of the contributions made by individuals regardless of the position they are seeking, including a federal office.