Rod Blagojevich made Illinois an embarrassing poster child for government corruption a year ago when as governor he was arrested on charges that included trying to sell the appointment to a U.S. Senate seat. Largely as a result, the state's General Assembly was moved to pass several pieces of reform legislation, including the state's first-ever bill placing real limits on campaign donations. It was signed into law Dec. 9, on the anniversary of the now-former governor's arrest. (An earlier version was vetoed after strong criticism it was too weak.) Brian Gaines is a professor of political science who studies polling and public opinion, and also closely follows Illinois politics. Gaines was interviewed by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
Even before Rod Blagojevich, state government in Illinois had a strong reputation for corruption. Does this bill hold any promise for changing that?
Maybe a little, but I'm not holding my breath. First, this bill deals only with campaign-finance law, and much of what is wrong with politics in the state has nothing to do with campaign finance. New laws governing redistricting would matter more. Second, even though many prominent reform groups endorsed the version of the bill that Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law, it does not change the most important and distinctive aspect of campaign funding in the state, namely extreme centralization in the hands of party leaders.
What are the key provisions in the bill?
There are some new regulations limiting the size of campaign donations from individuals, unions, corporations, and political action committees, and some provisions intended to make disclosure of donations more complete and prompt. Illinois has never had limits for state races (unlike most other states and federal offices), so this is real change. But campaign-finance reforms very often do not achieve the goals their sponsors announce, so it would be prudent to wait for an election cycle or two to play out before evaluating what changes these new rules actually bring about. There may be legal challenges, and there are probably loopholes.
What's missing and why?
There are no limits on general-election funding of candidates by the parties. If you peruse data on General Assembly contests, you see that about 50 percent of them are uncontested, only a handful are close, and that most of the money in those rare, close races comes from funds controlled by party leaders.
In turn, control of those purse strings gives party leaders like House Speaker Mike Madigan extremely tight control of their caucuses. This new law does not change that fact, and may even exaggerate the power of leaders over ordinary "backbench" legislators.
You noted that Illinois had been one of the few states with no real limits on campaign donations. What took so long?
Legislative leaders didn't want them, no governor chose to make a crusade of the matter, and the press and, especially, the general public have not been sufficiently interested in this kind of nitty-gritty to generate serious pressure from below for change. While many reform groups have been agitating for limits for years, some analysts have always been skeptical about the significance of limits, myself included. But this division in the ranks of experts, reformers and pundits was a very minor ingredient in the delay.
Why are Illinois politics seemingly more susceptible to corruption?
I think Illinois has gradually developed a dangerous and hard-to-reverse culture of cynicism about government and tolerance for corruption. In 2006, Rod Blagojevich was easily re-elected with support from many of the legislators who later impeached him (mainly for things he did in his first term) by a public that already had access to plenty of news about his misdeeds.
Is there any consensus among political scientists about what works and what doesn't in trying to limit the influence of money in politics? And should we even be concerned?
No, there is not even a consensus that limiting the influence of money is strictly desirable. Probably most political scientists think some additional reforms are merited, but you can find strong advocates for all kinds of regimes: 100 percent public financing; better and faster disclosure laws, without any donation or spending limits; more regulations on advertising and how money is spent; and so on. A few dissenters like to contrast campaign spending with product advertising. If cola and car companies spend vastly more than candidates to win over the public, they argue, should we really be alarmed that getting elected costs money? There's also a bit of a partisanship at play. Democrats outnumber Republicans in most political science departments, and there has long been unhappiness that Republican presidential candidates tend to outspend their Democratic opponents. Since Obama outspent McCain by more than two to one, many political scientists are newly relaxed about discrepancies in presidential-election spending. Party aside however, the really huge discrepancies in campaign spending mainly occur in legislative races, favoring incumbents, and those incumbents cannot be relied on to re-write rules that undo their big advantages. There is no state with a legal campaign-finance framework that offsets the edge that incumbents, as a class, enjoy over challengers.