Think Lobbyists Cannot Give Campaign Donations to California Politicians? Think Again.


Under California law, registered lobbyists are prohibited from giving campaign contributions to state candidates. The purpose of this prohibition is rather straightforward. Contributions from those overtly seeking to influence elected officials could lead to corruption, or at least the appearance of corruption. Simply put, such contributions are or seem particularly unseemly.

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However, under federal law, lobbyists are free to give to federal candidates. Federal law controls federal races, while state law dictates the permissible behavior for state races. Therefore, when state elected officials run for federal office, the same lobbyists prohibited from giving to state campaigns are free to give to federal ones. It strains common sense to think that state elected officials would be thankful for contributions to their state campaigns, but not as grateful to lobbyists for contributions in their federal campaigns.

We can again thank the ballot initiative that created term limits for the fact that so many state officials eventually run for federal office. Term limits has, among other things, helped to create an atmosphere of endless campaigning.

Can we at least take solace in the fact that California has a law that prohibits lobbyists from giving to state candidates? Maybe not for long. More than thirty years ago, in the Supreme Court's seminal decision in the area of campaign finance law, the Court essentially ruled that money given and spent in elections is speech. It follows that laws barring lobbyists from giving campaign contributions to state candidates infringes on the speech rights of lobbyists. Some courts have nonetheless upheld such bans, finding that they serve the compelling governmental interests of preventing corruption or at least situations that look like corruption.

The one piece of good news in this latest chapter of the endless saga about the influence of money over politics is that the money given by lobbyists to federal candidates (who are sometimes incumbent state officials) is disclosed in the Federal Election Commission's database. At the least, we know who is giving and receiving.

Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every Monday. She is a Visiting Professor at Loyola Law School. Find more of her posts here.

Image via Flickr user DonkeyHotey

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