What is so remarkable about Harris’s spending for Gray is that it was done after Citizens United, which meant that Harris could lawfully have run such a campaign, had she done it independently of Gray’s campaign. Critics of Citizens United have derided the court’s supposed naïveté when it pronounced that sponsors of large independent expenditures could not corrupt candidates in the same way as those making large contributions. But Harris chose not to fund a truly independent expenditure campaign, which suggests that she figured such an effort would not be as effective — be it in terms of currying favor with Gray, or in persuading and turning out voters for the candidate.
The straw contributions component of this scandal demonstrates the same point. In the typical straw contribution scheme, fundraising “bundlers” try to impress candidates by promising to raise a boatload of money for them. Falling short on their abilities, they end up funneling their own money to the campaigns through associates in order to evade the per-individual contribution limits. Again, if lawfully spending six figures on independent expenditures were as effective as illegally giving the money directly to candidates, straw donors wouldn’t risk the stiff criminal penalties. All this confirms the Supreme Court’s assessment; contributors still have a strong preference for steering money directly to candidates, and this is why independent political spending should not be subject to the same restrictions.
When all is said and done, the District’s campaign finance mess suggests nothing of the type of corruption that critics allege will arise from independent spending. Irrespective of Citizens United, the Gray matter demonstrates that there will always be scandal, because there will always be plenty of people who have access to a lot of cash in their piggybanks, but not a lot of gray matter in their heads.
Eric Wang is a political law attorney in the Washington, D.C., area and a former counsel at the Federal Election Commission.