WHEN THE Supreme Court decided the Citizens United case in 2010, permitting unlimited, independent spending in political campaigns by corporations and others as a form of protected free speech, the definition of “independent” was explicit. The court said, “By definition, an independent expenditure is political speech presented to the electorate that is not coordinated with a candidate.”
A consequence of that decision has been the rise of the super PAC, a committee that must disclose donors but can harvest gifts without limits. In an advisory opinion in 2011, the Federal Election Commission said that candidates could appear at fundraisers held by an “independent” super PAC, but candidates cannot personally solicit contributions in excess of federal limits: $2,700 to a candidate and $5,000 to a political committee. Once the candidate has left the room, someone else can solicit the big money.
In the past two election cycles, as super PACs mushroomed in number and size, campaigns deliberately played fast and loose with the definition of independent. Some super PACs blossomed to support only one candidate, miraculously came up with slogans and themes that exactly matched those of the candidate and were run by cronies of the candidate. In fact, they were independent in name only — but nothing happened. The gridlocked FEC watched passively.
Now it is clear this is leading to a bacchanal of super PAC fundraising and spending in the 2016 campaign. On April 21, the Associated Press reported that leading Republican candidate Jeb Bush, who has not yet declared but has been raising money rapidly, is preparing to turn over to a super PAC many of the activities normally conducted by a campaign staff, such as phone banks and get-out-the-vote efforts. It strains the imagination that a super PAC will be able to do this while remaining truly independent. Not to be outdone, Hillary Clinton made a swing to California this week to privately court donors to her anticipated super PAC. Only weeks earlier, Ms. Clinton declared that she wanted to “fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccounted money out of it once and for all.” But now she seems to be joining the super PAC gold rush — because she can. And other candidates aspire to do the same.
It is disturbing when presidential candidates deliberately and openly skirt the law and rules. What does it say about their judgment and character? If they take shortcuts here, what kind of integrity will they bring to the White House on other matters?
It is outrageous that the agency charged with regulating such a vital part of the political process, the FEC, has been effectively neutered. “The likelihood of the laws being enforced is slim,” FEC chairwoman Ann Ravel confessed to the New York Times, calling the agency “worse than dysfunctional” because of a 3-3 partisan split among commissioners that has paralyzed enforcement.
Most disconcerting of all is the corrosive influence of big money on democracy. The donors of these millions of dollars in contributions will come back looking for favors after the campaign. They always do.