The fact that state lawmakers write the campaign finance laws they follow is a little off-putting. The idiom about foxes and henhouses comes to mind. House Bill 1195 demonstrates the danger, but it’s cruising toward passage.
Candidates need money to run effective campaigns, but there’s always the risk that donations create the perception — and sometimes the reality — of donors buying privileged access and a sympathetic ear. That’s why Washington and other states have campaign-finance laws, and high priority among the rules is disclosure. Let the people at least see who gives how much to whom so that they can judge for themselves if the giver is buying undue influence.
That system requires oversight and enforcement. The job primarily falls to the state Public Disclosure Commission and the attorney general. Washingtonians who see something sketchy going on with donations can file a complaint.
But what if neither the PDC nor the attorney general chooses to act within the allotted time? What if they look the other way when a complaint is against a Democrat in a Democrat-controlled state and crack down on Republicans and third-party candidates? Then residents can appeal to the courts.
They can, that is, unless House Bill 1195 becomes law. It effectively would end appeals. If the PDC and attorney general render decisions, no matter how superficial, that would be the end of it. The bill also would reinforce lengthy delays approved last year that make a lot of challenges mostly useless because officials might be able to drag their feet until after the election.
This isn’t an effort to curtail frivolous lawsuits. The law already does that. The loser of a suit must pay reasonable attorney’s fees for the other side. Filers also may not argue the case themselves; they must hire a lawyer.
That’s not to say that the average citizen is behind most challenges to campaign finance violations. Usually watchdog groups or political opponents file them. Most people don’t have time to comb through donor filings to ensure they are made on time and include all contributions. The competitive nature of elections and politics ensures that someone is watching, though.
Those watchers need a tool for independent judicial review when the PDC, which is appointed by the partisan governor, and the attorney general, who is also a partisan elected official, refuse to help. HB 1195 passed the House 95-2. Now it’s up to senators to preserve campaign finance accountability.