MITT ROMNEY HAS a prescription for the super PAC problem: Allow political candidates to collect unlimited donations, instead of having the funds funneled to supposedly independent groups. “Let campaigns then take responsibility for their own words,” Mr. Romney said at Monday’s debate.
He raises an intriguing question: Given the Supreme Court’s flawed interpretation of the First Amendment — that campaign spending equals speech; that independent expenditures on behalf of candidates, even by corporations, therefore cannot be limited — would the campaign finance system be better off with a regime of no limits plus full and timely disclosure of donations? In other words, a world where the $5 million check can go directly to the candidate? As Mr. Romney put it, “Wouldn’t it nice to have people give what they would like to to campaigns, and campaigns could run their own ads and take responsibility for them?”
No. Mr. Romney’s cure not only threatens to be worse than the disease, it wouldn’t necessarily cure the disease. The $5 million check to the super PAC supporting the candidate is bad enough — it creates the reality or appearance of a candidate beholden to a particular donor. Unlimited donations to candidates would be worse. Candidates would be implicated in soliciting these mega-checks, further undermining public confidence in the system. The pressure would be on to allow unlimited contributions by corporations and labor unions directly to candidates; currently, they are permitted, in the aftermath of the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, to give to super PACs. The Republican National Committee is already arguing in federal court that the ban on corporate contributions to individual candidates should be declared unconstitutional.
Moreover, the attractiveness of the super PAC would be diminished but not eliminated, for the very reason that Mr. Romney notes: The PACs offer a useful, look-ma-no-hands vehicle to do candidates’ dirty work. Why assume these groups would disappear if contribution limits for candidates were eliminated?
Mr. Romney’s suggestion is superficially appealing because fixing the current mess seems so difficult. A constitutional amendment isn’t likely; neither is a total change of heart by the Supreme Court. The FEC is dysfunctional, and Congress is gridlocked on this issue.
Despite all that, trying to fix what’s broken makes more sense than breaking the system further. Tighter rules on coordination could be written to prevent wink-and-nod interactions between candidates and super PACs, such as, for example, Mr. Romney’s appearance at an event sponsored by the super PAC supporting him. The flawed disclosure schedule could be improved.
The emergence of the candidate-specific super PAC, dedicated to the interests of a particular politician, puts a different gloss on the Supreme Court’s wrongheaded notion that independent expenditures do not pose a corruption risk. Even this court might be persuaded to uphold legislation treating these entities, staffed by the candidates’ longtime advisers, as arms of the campaign.