Obama's Super PAC Flip-Flop

February 7, 2012

The mock outrage at President Obama’s campaign for blessing contributions to the Super PAC supporting him, Priorities USA, is a distraction from the real questions about today’s campaign finance environment — how to stop the abuses, and who will provide the leadership needed to achieve meaningful change.

The president’s apparent about-face — from condemning “the corrosive influence of money in politics” in the State of the Union to his campaign’s announcement that it will “do what [it] can, consistent with the law, to support Priorities USA” — provided plenty of fodder for critics. But it’s not surprising. In 2008, Obama reversed course, too — he first planned to participate in the presidential public financing program, but later eschewed it when it became clear he could raise more money outside the system.

The reality in 2012 is that no candidate with a serious chance of winning can afford, in the words of Obama for America campaign manager Jim Messina, to “unilaterally disarm.” The campaign fundraising arms race this election cycle, like it or not, involves Super PACs. They’ve already dumped $40 million of slash-and-burn attack ads into the Republican presidential primaries. Karl Rove’s Super PAC alone, working with a related non-profit group, raised $51 million last year.

However disappointing it was to campaign reform advocates, the only surprise about the Obama campaign’s decision to play by the same rules is that it waited this long to make the announcement. Any campaign that doesn’t take advantage of the rules that permit super spending by Super PACs doesn’t stand a chance.

The Supreme Court’s disastrous decision in Citizens United v. FEC helped enable the Super PAC takeover of elections (as did other court decisions), but the Supreme Court isn’t entirely to blame. Under the Court’s decisions, the only groups that can raise and spend unlimited sums are groups that are completely independent of the campaigns. The candidate-specific Super PACs are anything but.

Why do these groups, which look like shadow arms of the campaigns to any common-sense viewer, operate under rules designed for groups that are wholly independent of campaigns? In large part, the answer has to do with the Federal Election Commission.

In 2010, the FEC issued an advisory opinion that green-lighted Super PACs: as long as a group tells the FEC it’s not affiliated with any campaign and won’t make direct contributions to candidates, it can raise and spend without limit. Later, in spite of laws providing that groups like Super PACs can’t coordinate with candidates and still claim to be independent, the FEC said that Super PACs could legally do a whole lot that looks like coordination. Only at the FEC can a group run ads that are “fully coordinated” with a candidate and still say it is “wholly independent” of his campaign.

The FEC was created under the Federal Election Campaign Act, enacted 40 years ago today, and the last four decades have shown that the agency isn’t up to the task of enforcing the nation’s campaign finance laws. The Alice-in-Wonderland approach it has taken to the Super PACs dominating this year’s election is just its latest failure.

Congress should replace the FEC with an agency that will actually carry out its mission. (While it’s at it, Congress could fix the Super PAC problem by passing laws that give real meaning to words like “independence” and “coordination.”) The abuses that will inevitably emerge from this year’s orgy of Super PAC spending should be sufficient to galvanize support from both sides of the aisle to pass meaningful campaign reform.

But even if partisan gridlock in Congress continues to stymie legislative reform, the president can take a significant step toward addressing the current state of dysfunction at the FEC. Five of the six commissioners who “lead” the agency are serving with expired terms, and the president has the power to appoint competent replacements committed to enforcing the nation’s campaign laws.

A coalition of reform groups under the leadership of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has been calling on President Obama to do just that — since 2009. So far, the president has ignored the calls to appoint new leaders to the FEC.

There is no excuse for further delay. If President Obama is genuinely concerned about the “corrosive” impact of big money in our elections, he should demonstrate it with action, not rhetoric.