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Fri, Sept. 20

Column: New PAC rules make bribery legal

Politicians asking for bribes is now legal. There are three recent legal changes involved. Follow me on this.

First, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have the right to unlimited political spending. There are still restrictions on individual or corporate contributions directly to candidates' campaigns, but not to independent advocacy groups. Before this ruling, corporations were restricted on giving even to these independent groups.

These groups are PACs (Political Action Committees) that advocate for a policy or set of candidates. They have to act independently. That is, they can run ads and do other work for a particular policy, or they can advocate voting for a particular candidate, but they cannot coordinate that with the candidate's campaign committee. This has been pretty closely watched by competing groups so there really has been very little coordination. Although if a group decides to run ads for a candidate, it doesn't take much coordination. They can see what positions that candidate is taking and what issues he's running on, and run ads on the same themes.

With the Supreme Court ruling, corporations are free to give unlimited amounts to these PACs. It is expected that this will lead to a lot more money going to influence elections. The 2010 congressional elections bore this out. Before the 2010 election, Karl Rove formed two PACs specifically to help Republican candidates, and those two PACs collected huge amounts of money and were the biggest single financial factor in the election. Some PACs have a general cause that tends to align with one party or the other - say an environmental PAC, or a PAC against regulations on business. PACs such as what Rove created don't have a general cause; they have one focus and that is to get their candidates elected. They serve as an unofficial, independent war chest for the candidate.

When the Supreme Court justices made their ruling, they justified it in part on the idea that these huge corporate donations would be made public. They made a big point of that in their ruling. They reaffirmed that donations over $1,000 should be reported to the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), and Justice Kennedy wrote, "disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages."

How those donations are made public is under the control of the FEC. The FEC is, by law, an even split of Democratic and Republican members. In the past, they have always managed to work out deadlocked votes when implementing regulations. Just recently, the Republicans on the FEC have said that the listing of donors does not apply to independent PACs and are refusing any regulation that would require it. With an even split of members, that leaves a deadlock, so there are no guidelines on reporting. Therefore, these PACs can take these huge donations and make no public reporting of it.

Up until recently, the fact these PACs had to act independently was taken as complete - no interaction with the candidate or their campaign. Now a major Republican PAC is saying that the independence only applies to how they spend the money, not on raising it. So they are planning to have fundraising events and meetings with potential donors in which the candidates themselves are doing the asking. The PACs are even telling donors that they can designate what candidate they want the PAC to spend the money on. The only thing the candidate and the donors cannot tell the PAC is how to spend that money, whether for ads, or get out the vote drives, or what content is in an ad.

Democrats are challenging this new approach, but the only avenue for a ruling is back to the deadlocked FEC.

Politicians still have to separate meetings with constituents about legislative issues from meetings about fundraising. As if that makes any difference under these new circumstances. So, say a politician is running for re-election and is on a committee that writes some corporate rules. They could, in a separate meeting, of course, ask that corporate group for some huge, election-changing donation. They could ask that it be given to some PAC and designated for their support. Now there is no requirement for any public listing of his asking, or of the corporate group's giving of the donation. We will never know about any such deal. In the past, that would have been considered soliciting a bribe. Now it is legal.

Democrats have opposed each step, but as each step has become the new rules of the game, they have decided they have to play the same game or lose.

Tom Cantlon is a longtime local resident, business owner and writer. Contact him at

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