Unfettered campaign contributions are changing the playing field
DES MOINES — The barrage of commercials tells the story: This is a presidential election without meaningful contribution limits or timely disclosure, outsourced to political action committees whose spending often dwarfs that of the candidates they support.
The PACs' benign, intentionally uninformative names belie the brutal nature of their attack ads and the closeness of their relationships with the candidates, despite the requirement that they operate independently.
The leading example, in terms of financial firepower and ferocity of assault, is "Restore Our Future," the Mitt Romney-supporting super PAC that has unleashed a $4 million barrage against Newt Gingrich. (It worked. Gingrich complained of being "Romney-boated," a reference to the Swift boat attacks on John Kerry in 2004.)
The committee is run by Carl Forti, political director of Romney's 2008 campaign. Its treasurer is Charles Spies, the Romney 2008 general counsel. Its fundraiser, Steve Roche, headed the Romney 2012 finance team until jumping to the super PAC last summer. And to underscore the flimsiness of the PAC's supposed independence, Romney himself has spoken at "Restore Our Future" events.
Yet up-to-date information about who is bankrolling this effort will not be available until the end of January, by which point four states will have voted and Romney may have the nomination wrapped up.
The last time "Restore Our Future" disclosed its donors to the Federal Election Commission was six months ago, when it reported raising $12 million. The committee would have had to update the information by Jan. 15 but — as have several other super PACs — it managed to postpone that another two weeks by changing its filing status from quarterly to monthly.
Of course, "Restore Our Future" isn't alone — nor is the super PAC a Republican phenomenon. Rick Perry supporters have formed the "Make Us Great Again" PAC. Newt Gingrich has "Winning Our Future."
In New Hampshire, the "Our Destiny" PAC backing Jon Huntsman, and reportedly funded by the candidate's wealthy father, has a new ad calling on voters to "stop the chameleon." (That would be Romney.) On the Democratic side, former Obama aides Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney launched "Priorities USA," which has already been on the air with anti-Romney ads.
The rise of these groups erodes the twin pillars of a functional campaign finance system: limits on the size of contributions and timely information about who is writing the checks.
"The establishment of the candidate-specific super PAC is a vehicle to completely destroy candidate contribution limits," says Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign finance reform group Democracy 21, which is releasing a report on the phenomenon. "It is a vehicle that will spread to Congress and it will lead us back to a system of pure legalized bribery, because you will be back, pre-Watergate, to unlimited contributions that are going for all practical purposes directly to candidates."
Bonus points: The super PAC funds the dirty work of attack ads while the candidate gets to remain above the fray, not required to appear on camera to say he approved this message.
"I view the super PAC as the evil twin of the candidate's campaign committee," Federal Election Commission member Ellen Weintraub told me.
The emergence of these entities is the unanticipated but logical outgrowth of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. The uproar over the opinion involved the all-clear for unlimited corporate independent expenditures on behalf of candidates, and this is still a potential problem.
But as a practical matter, most publicly held corporations are squeamish about being associated with such direct advocacy. Instead, the real-world impact of Citizens United, in combination with lower court rulings, was to usher in the era of the super PAC.
"By definition, an independent expenditure is political speech presented to the electorate that is not coordinated with a candidate," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion, dismissing the notion that such spending could be corrosive.
Did he really mean to clear the path for independent expenditure committees backing a particular candidate — and bankrolled by the candidate's father or run by his former top aides?
"How can it possibly be true that to give more than $2,500 to a candidate is potentially corrupting but to give millions to an outside group that is acting on the candidate's behalf is not?" Weintraub asked.
Absent legislative intervention (unlikely) or regulatory action (even less likely), the super PAC is a dangerous new force in American politics. What happened in Iowa won't stay in Iowa.