The FEC’s decision on Stephen Colbert’s request to form a PAC garnered a lot of publicity today, but a second, less noticed decision has potentially far more devastating consequences. The FEC unanimously decided that federal officeholders and candidates may solicit contributions for independent expenditure-only PACS, also known as Super PACs. Candidates and elected officials may only ask for contributions of $5,000 or less from individuals, but the Super PACs are free to take unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations and labor unions.
This decision takes us perilously close to the days of soft money—those unlimited contributions candidates would solicit for the national parties in order to skirt limits on how much could be directly given to their campaigns. Soft money contributions to the national parties dried up after limits were put in place by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.
But now they are back. Almost. The FEC’s decision today opened the door for elected officials to ask corporate CEOs or union leaders for personal contributions of no more than $5,000. That is a limit in name only. There is nothing preventing those donors from writing a check for far more than that amount, not only from their personal pocketbook but from their corporate or union treasuries as well. The nudge-nudge-wink-wink fundraiser is fully operational.
Moreover, the Super PACs for which Members of Congress will be dialing for dollars are legally known as “Independent Expenditure Only Political Committees,” begging the question: Can a PAC act independently from a candidate or elected official who is raising money for it?
The campaign finance system is in tatters. Despite niceties that place “limits” on how much candidates and elected officials can ask for, the fact is that unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations and unions now have multiple avenues to reach the center of our electoral process. Transparency is the thread that may hold accountability in the democratic process in place. A version of the DISCLOSE Act, the Lobbyist Disclosure Enhancement Act and the Shareholder Protection Act are important tools to ensure that as unlimited money takes over our elections, we can at least see where it is coming from.