How billionaires use super PACs to buy candidates

WASHINGTON – Have a couple hundred million bucks to spare? Want to make sure laws, regulations and loopholes grease the wheels for huge profits? Buy a presidential candidate or two, and maybe a senator or a Congressional representative.

All you have to do is throw some “independent expenditures” their way.

Want to make your purchase on the q.t. so the hoi polloi don’t get riled up? No problem. Just funnel your “independent” funds through “super political action committees” (super PACs) and you can remain anonymous.

Worried that your candidate might not do your bidding because super PACs aren’t supposed to get directly involved in political campaigns? Not to worry. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) has been tearing down the wall between campaigns and super PACs brick by brick since 2010.

In fact, now you don’t even have to search for candidates to buy. They’ll come to you.

Last month, while the nation was distracted by the winter holidays, the FEC quietly ruled that it’s okay for federal candidates to solicit contributions for super PACs as long as the meetings are kept small. There can only be the candidate and two other people present (how cozy!).

What’s more, the FEC said that a candidate’s campaign consultant and other aides can solicit large donations for a candidate’s super PAC as long as they make clear that they are not making the request at the direct request of the candidate (wink, wink).

“The notion that these kinds of small back-room meetings can take place is actually very dangerous if you’re worried about corruption,” said FEC member Elizabeth Weintraub, who voted against allowing the cozy meetings. “The fewer people you have in the room, the fewer protections you have against something unsavory happening.” The FEC has six members: three Republicans, two Democrats and an independent.

Super PACs have grown like kudzu since the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United vs FEC. The Court ruled that corporations have the same freedom of speech rights as people and could make “independent expenditures” to promote their opinions, as long as those opinions were not disseminated as part of a candidate’s political campaign.

The court said, “By definition, an independent expenditure is political speech presented to the electorate that is not in coordination with a candidate.” Such expenditures, the court concluded, “including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

This has proven to be male bovine fecal matter (MBFM).

Before Citizens United, corporate executives, like others, mostly gave directly to political campaigns. There were limits on how much they could give: $2,700 per election to a federal candidate and $5,000 per calendar year to any organization’s political action committee. Recipients of the contributions had to report who gave how much.

Of course, the big money folks found ways to exceed the limits through gimmicks and loopholes, but the sums involved were paltry compared to what it takes to buy candidates.

Corporate lawyers looked at the problem and came up with the boldest gimmick to date: “Corporations have the same rights as people,” they said. “The limits on campaign contributions and the requirements to report them stifle the freedom of speech of corporations.”

The Supreme Court agreed.

Corporations and their bosses still give directly to political campaigns even though they are subject to regulations that require reporting and to rules that limit contributions. However, since the Citizens United decision, the largest chunk of political contributions by far goes to super PACs, where the sky’s the limit and there are few reporting requirements.

“It’s pretty clear that the super PACs are playing an unprecedented role,” said Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute. “This whole development to me is staggering. You’re in a fundamentally different system than 12 years ago or eight years ago.”

Nearly $4 out of every $5 raised so far to support GOP White House contenders has gone into super PACs rather than to official political campaigns: more than $235 million has gone to super PACs and $67 million has been put into the official war chests of Republican candidates.

On the other hand, eighty percent of the more than $80 million total raised so far for Democratic candidates has gone to the campaign themselves.

However, candidates from both political parties have taken advantage of the ever-shrinking wall between candidates and Super PACs. The only exceptions are Bernie Sanders, who refuses to use Super PACs, and Donald Trump, who doesn’t need them.

For example, Correct the Record, a super PAC, recently announced publicly that it would be working directly with the Hillary Clinton campaign. This is perfectly legal. The FEC has ruled that individuals who engage in political activity on the Internet are exempt from any and all campaign finance laws.

Furthermore, before they officially throw their hats in the ring, the FEC allows candidates to raise money for super PACs who will be backing them. For instance, before officially announcing his candidacy Jeb Bush helped raise more than $100 million for Right to Rise, a super PAC that now supports him.

But wait; there’s more. Under FEC rules, candidates may raise money for super PACs and even appear at their events. All the FEC requires is that the hosts send a written invitation to the candidate, that there is a formal program for the event and that there is a disclaimer stating that the candidate is appearing as a “special guest.” At the event, the candidate cannot ask for donations larger than the amounts donors may give directly to their campaigns. (A lot of winking goes on at such affairs.)

The list of ways campaigns and super PACs can coordinate goes on and on, assuring that those who pay the piper will get any tune they want.

Democratic FEC appointee Ann Ravel said that the FEC “is making a mockery of the rules that the candidates can’t coordinate and fundraise for super PACs.”

She said, “Now that they explicitly have a green light, even those who might have been resistant to temptation now [give into it].”

That’s not MBFM.

Photo: Milford Patch


Larry Rubin
Larry Rubin

Larry Rubin has been a union organizer, a speechwriter and an editor of union publications. He was a civil rights organizer in the Deep South and is often invited to speak on applying Movement lessons to today's challenges. He has produced several folk music shows.