Over the past 24 months, a deplorable activity in the money management business came to light. It got the name "pay to play" but was just another form of bribery. The common description of pay to play is "the practice of making campaign contributions and related payments to elected officials in order to influence the awarding of lucrative contracts for the management of public pension plan assets and similar government investment accounts." Yup—sounds like bribery to me.
However, for some reason, the definition of this expanded to include any campaign contributions to any state or local officials, regardless of the size. So, if I contribute $1,000 to the campaign of the Colorado state treasurer, I violate this SEC rule and become someone who is "paying to play." Now, as someone who gets multiple calls and emails most days to contribute to campaigns as an election approaches, I can assure you that it has never occurred to me to support the campaign for a state treasurer. However, I do know that a candidate for state treasurer has called me asking for campaign contributions. And I've politely declined.
After studying the implications of this ruling, I've decided it prohibits me and my spouse (Amy) from making any campaign contributions to state or local races anywhere in the country. The NVCA has also studied the new SEC rule and has come to the same conclusion:
"This ruling is consistent with guidance the NVCA has been providing members. It is now even more important to have a firm-wide policy against political contributions to these officials / candidates. This restriction does NOT include political contributions to candidates running for federal office (U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate, U.S. President) nor does it include contributions to the NVCA PAC, which only gives to federal candidates."
We've instituted this rule at Foundry Group, although it's upsetting and offensive to me because I think it fundamentally violates my First Amendment rights. To err on the side of caution, we've determined that spouses cannot make state or local political contributions either. This infuriates Amy, as it should.
It's even more upsetting when you consider that there is no cap on political contributions that corporations can make. The Supreme Court ruled on this in January stating that the government has no business regulating political speech. So, on one hand we have corporations who can give any amount to any candidate running for office while on the other hand my wife can't contribute $1,000 to someone running for governor of Colorado.
Now, don't misunderstand me—I think pay to play is grotesque. And Amy and I are huge advocates of campaign finance reform. However, the core problem of pay to play is bribery, not the active support of state and local candidates for office by individual citizens. They are totally different things and should be able to be easily and cleanly differentiated, without the government regulating my political speech.
Reprinted from Feld Thoughts
Brad Feld is a managing director at Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. He invests in software and Internet companies around the U.S., runs marathons, and reads a lot. Follow him at twitter.com/bfeld.