Monday, February 11, 2008

A tale of two senators' homes (last post on the loan issue)

Alaska Senator Ted Stevens has had his name dragged through the mud, and deserved it, for allowing a company with important governmental dealings to rebuild his house at apparently below-market rates. Stevens may ultimately face criminal charges for this and other misdeeds.

For the 1996 special election to replace Oregon Senator Bob Packwood, Democratic candidate Ron Wyden self-financed a significant part of his campaign by loaning the campaign money that he obtained by mortgaging his home. Wyden won the election and remains a Senator today. As it was a loan, I presume subsequent donations to Wyden were used to pay back the loan.*

In both cases, donors with financial interests in governmental actions paid for substantial parts of senators' homes. The one difference is that what Wyden did was certainly legal - but should it have been?

The response to Clinton's $5 million loan has been muted, I think. Some people have the same concern as me:

If HRC wins the election, or if she doesn't and goes back to being a powerful senator, there's going to be a fundraising drive to pay off the debt. Those contributions, unlike routine campaign contributions, will go directly into her pocket. Won't that put her under a special obligation to those donors? And, since those contributions won't actually help her get elected to anything, won't they be especially likely to come from buyers-of-access rather than political supporters?

The Center for Responsive Politics has a longstanding concern over the issue:

An increasing number of federal and state candidates are financing their campaigns, wholly or in part, with loans from themselves. In order to pay themselves back, many of these candidates, once elected, raise money from PACs and wealthy individuals interested in gaining special access and influence. During the campaign, voters have no way of knowing who these contributors are; the pre-election disclosure forms only show the loans.

At the link above, it mentions legal limits on loans as a somewhat-useful political reform.

I really hope this issue doesn't go away, although it seems to be fading quickly as far as it applies to Clinton. Incredibly, her supporters seem only more motivated to give her money after she loaned money to her campaign. Amazing how differently people react to the same piece of information.

*I'm writing the Ron Wyden information from memory - financial disclosure info I've found doesn't mention loans. I am certain I remember reading it in the Oregon newspapers.

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