“Release the hounds.” That, in effect, is what President Barack Obama said Monday night when he affixed his presidential imprimatur to a Democratic super-PAC called Priorities USA Action.
The political action committee, run by a former Obama White House aide, has been falling behind a slew of Republican super-PACs in the money hunt. Apparently the president concluded that his aloofness was costing the Democratic group. By openly embracing Priorities USA, Obama sent a message to its potential donors that their efforts would be appreciated at the highest level.
The only surprise here is that the president waited so long. Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and even comedian Stephen Colbert have all beaten Obama to the super-PAC punch. (Super-PACs are independent committees that can raise unlimited sums from corporations, unions and other sources.)
Romney personally appeared at an event for Restore Our Future, the super-PAC run by a close aide. Gingrich’s campaign would have been buried weeks ago in negative ads (many courtesy of Restore Our Future) were it not for a $10 million rescue package from Gingrich friend Sheldon Adelson to a super-PAC run by a Gingrich aide. And Colbert continues to provide a public service by blatantly coordinating with his “independent” super-PAC in ways that are both comically awful and curiously lawful.
In a blog post announcing Obama’s move, his campaign manager, Jim Messina, offered the standard disclaimers. Obama didn’t ask for this. He opposed the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United, which opened the door to unlimited corporate donations. He supported legislation to force disclosure of all political contributions. He can’t afford to disarm unilaterally while super-PACs aligned with Romney raise tens of millions of dollars.
The arguments are as undeniable as they are predictable. Yet there is one crucial area of campaign finance, unmentioned by Messina, over which the president has genuine influence: the Federal Election Commission.
The FEC has never been a high-functioning operation. But in recent years it has become at least as significant as the Citizens United decision in aiding and abetting the degradation of American politics. The commission is made up of three Democrats and three Republicans. Like the Democrats, the Republicans stay true to their school, using rulings to advance partisan loyalties. In addition, however, the Republicans are philosophically hostile to the regulation of campaigns, making their job -- campaign regulation -- oxymoronic. As a result, the commission has failed to produce rules that comply with even the minimal expectations of the Citizens United decision or of laws previously passed by Congress. Because violations of even watered-down rules go unpunished by the FEC, campaign operatives behave accordingly.
The commission’s downgrade of disclosure requirements, for example, was a two-part process. First, a disclosure rule on electioneering communications was narrowed. Then, in response to a complaint about a political group’s failure to disclose, the Republican commissioners narrowed the meaning of the rule further, rather than impose a penalty. Deviance was defined down.
So it’s significant that five of the six current FEC commissioners are serving expired terms. In fact, the terms of two commissioners, Republican Donald McGahn and Democrat Steven Walther, expired almost two years ago. Yet Obama has nominated no one to the FEC.
Given the ardor with which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky opposes campaign-finance regulations, any Obama nomination would almost certainly be filibustered and die. But it’s hard to believe Obama is doing all he can if he continues to duck this fight. With the Supreme Court and Congress effectively out of the picture, the FEC is the only venue left for making reasonable adjustments to campaign-finance law -- requiring a genuine degree of non-coordination between PACs and campaigns, for example, and mandating the disclosure of all political donors (preferably by electronic notification to the FEC within 48 hours).
In the current polarized environment, it’s hard to imagine an FEC battle would produce the desired change. But when paired with Obama’s newsworthy embrace of super-PACs, it could certainly produce a few weeks of vigorous public education. That’s something. After all, Colbert must be getting tired of carrying the weight of reason alone.
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