The PAC problem

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Wednesday, February 9, 2011; 7:38 PM

IN THEORY, donations to presidential candidates are limited to $2,500 from any one person, or $5,000 if you include both the primary and general election campaigns. In practice, and it's being practiced fiercely right now, prospective presidential candidates have bulldozed through those limits. Using political action funds set up on the state rather than the federal level and employing the fig leaf that they have not formally launched a presidential campaign, political figures such as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour have managed to collect donations far in excess of the federal limits. As T.W. Farnam and Dan Eggen reported in The Post, Mr. Romney, for example, collected $190,000 on a single day from a South Dakota couple who spread their contributions among five of his state-level political action committees (PACs). Overall, they found, Mr. Romney collected more than $1 million from just a dozen supporters.

These are the sort of big checks that the post-Watergate system of campaign finance reform was supposed to end. It was bad enough when prospective candidates used federal-level PACs, which are permitted to accept checks of up to $5,000, to underwrite their nascent campaigns. The state PAC dodge, which has been underway for several election cycles, is even worse: it lets candidates use, in states whose laws are lax enough, unlimited individual and corporate donations.

This arrangement may simply exploit a loophole in existing law, but it is a yet another symptom of a presidential financing system badly in need of overhaul. The fiction that permits prospective candidates to benefit from looser state contribution limits is that they are not yet officially running for president but rather raising and spending money on behalf of general political activities, such as underwriting travel or making contributions to other candidates. This may pass muster with the Federal Election Commission, but it barely passes the laugh test. Somehow, the travel generally turns out to be in key primary states and the contributions to political candidates there. Ben Ginsberg, Mr. Romney's savvy election lawyer, told the New York Times last year that the candidate had been using the state PACs for several election cycles. "It's what the law allows us to do," Mr. Ginsberg said. That is precisely the problem.


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