So, how big can campaign contributions get? If groups of all types contribute money, isn't the system one of balanced, pluralist competition? Even if contributions of one group aren't offset by those of another group, won't corrupt public officials be exposed and ultimately thrown out by voters?
The Center for Responsive Politics reported that the total amount of money raised in 2001 (and reported by August 2, 2002) by all candidates for the U.S. Senate was almost $225 million. For the same period (and reporting cutoff) candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives raised over $400 million. Between the two chambers of Congress, a total of $630 million had been reported by mid-summer 2002. Texas, with its large congressional delegation, has been the site of extensive fundraising by candidates, political action committees, interest groups, and political parties. The tab labeled "Political Advantage" in this chapter's feature Money and Votes in Texas provides overall campaign contribution amounts in congressional races in recent elections in Texas.
State races have also become increasingly expensive at all levels of the political system. The 2002 race for governor set a new benchmark for spending, as the candidates spent $92.2 million - a figure propelled skyward by the $66.3 million Democratic candidate Tony Sanchez personally spent on his unsuccessful campaign (see the tab "The Governors' Take" in the table referenced above). In a move unusual for a modern Democratic candidate, Sanchez contributed much of this money from his own personal fortune. Spending fell significantly in the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, despite the fact that two well-known independents joined the race. The seven candidates for governor raised $42,493,800. Despite the lower levels in 2006, the amount of money raised and spent for just the gubernatorial race is considerable.
Assessing the impact of money on elections is notoriously difficult and subject to debate. Candidates and defenders of prevailing campaign finance rules tend to suggest that pluralism largely prevents candidates from being bought and sold. But at the very least, the sums of weakly regulated money that flow into campaigns and through the lobby mean that ethical questions will swirl perpetually around campaign contributions and campaign finances will be an ever-present issue in political races.
Defenders of the current guidelines argue that violations are exceptions to the rule in a system that allows interests to pursue their political goals by exercising their constitutionally guaranteed rights to petition government and engage in free speech.
Skeptics of the current system who doubt the ability of the legislature to change it believe that, as one speaker at a 2002 ethics reform rally on the steps of the state Capital put it, legislative efforts "stink." Critics point to the continuing flow of money - both directly to candidates and parties and indirectly through lobbyists - as evidence that the system is inherently corrupt. The very legislators charged with reform, critics argue, are the ones most dependent on the current system.
Yet the evidence critics of the system point to most frequently - the sums of money spent on political contributions - does not in itself stand as evidence of corruption, and certainly not of illegality, given current Texas law and long-standing links between money and politics in the state. Legislators insist that they are not improperly swayed by contributions. Contributors argue that as long as they follow the law, they are exercising their constitutional right to petition government and express themselves. Lobbyists defend themselves as advocates for interests that deserve - and can afford - effective representation.
In the absence of major scandal to galvinize the public or of sustained pressure for campaign finance reform from political parties, public officials, influential interest groups, or even from the voting public, the legislature will continue to make only minor periodic adjustments in existing campaign finance regulations.