The Mythical Restrictions on Super PACs

The Mythical Restrictions on Super PACs November 28, 2011

ProPublica, a non-profit news organization that has done Pulitzer prize-winning work, takes a look at Super PACs. Those entities are supposed to be independent of any candidate but the reality is quite the opposite.

Ask any campaign-finance expert about super PACs and you’ll likely keep hearing one word: “coordination.” That’s because Super PACs — the super-powered groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money from anyone — have just one crucial restriction on their powers: By law, they’re not supposed to coordinate with candidates.

Think that sounds clear? Think again.

“The restrictions on interactions between candidates and Super PACs are far more modest than the public believes,” said Paul Ryan, a lawyer with Campaign Legal Center, a campaign-finance advocacy group.

So long as candidates and Super PACs don’t discuss the particulars of their election spending — such as exactly where or how long their election ads will run — they’re free to discuss strategy and candidates can even help fundraise. One result: A presidential candidate can ask supporters — even his own father — to give to a Super PAC without it being “coordinated.” Or a group could plan to produce a “fully coordinated” ad with a candidate that it argues is uncoordinated.

“Coordination limits are essentially a joke if you want to avoid them,” said Michael Franz, an associate professor of government at Bowdoin College…

Fundamentally, coordination rules are no laughing matter. Just ask the Supreme Court, which ruled in Citizens United that as long as money is spent independently of candidates — that is, without coordination — corporate and union donations are legal because they “do not give rise to corruption.” With that important restriction, corporations and unions were given free rein to spend as much as they want on elections.

The problem, says Ryan, is that the current coordination rules are so limited the Supreme Court was “either being disingenuous or naïve.” …

While Super PACs began forming in the lead up to the 2010 midterm elections, the big fad so far this year has been the formation of Super PACs dedicated to specific candidates.

Obama, Romney, Perry, Cain, Huntsman, Bachmann — all the major candidates have at least one supporting them now. The groups are often set up by former aides, former campaign managers or close confidantes familiar with both the candidate’s messaging and talking points.

Candidates and their Super PACs are allowed to fundraise together as long as the spending of the money isn’t done in conjunction with the campaign. But as the text above demonstrates, this is a useless distinction when the Super PACs are run by campaign aides. And the FEC says candidates can’t ask for more than $5000, but the person they ask can give as much money as they want to the PAC — another absolutely meaningless regulation. And these are being used by both Republicans and Democrats.

Sometimes the obvious must be stated: We simply cannot rely on any member of Congress, from either party, to put meaningful campaign finance reform in place. They are the ones who benefit from the system being the way it is. The same is true of ethics legislation that governs themselves. The only thing they will offer is a sham series of reforms that have the appearance of solving the problem while actually guaranteeing that it will continue.

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