Campaign reformers: Tighten coordination rules first

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A silhouette of a cheering man sitting on top of a stack of money.
Image credit: Sunlight Foundation.

Five years after the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision, unlimited outside money has muscled in to elections on almost every level, from the White House to county commissioners. Barring some unexpected congressional action, that fact won’t change any time soon. So some campaign reformers are shifting their focus from dollar amounts to upholding the majority opinion’s reasoning as to why politicians won’t be influenced by the big spenders: federal coordination laws.

To prevent outside groups from becoming quasi-campaign committees, the court cited rules barring coordination between candidates and independent actors like super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money unlike regular campaign committees. Whether super PACS really are independent was the subject of a briefing on Capitol Hill Thursday convened by the Brennan Center for Justice and featuring Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., elections officials and speakers from campaign reform groups.

The regulatory firewalls meant to keep candidate’s campaigns separate the super PACs that support them are looking pretty permeable these days. Ryan Zinke, a freshman GOP House member from Montana, served as the chair of a super PAC, Special Operations for America PAC (SOFA PAC), until three weeks before he announced he would run for office. SOFA PAC spent around $175,000 to elect Zinke, who promptly hired the PAC’s treasurer as his chief of staff upon winning office.

In West Virginia, Sunlight reporting discovered that a federal super PAC that spent over $1 million on state House races in the Mountain State was being run by two members of the state Republican committee. Under federal law, party officials are not supposed to coordinate with groups that can raise unlimited sums from corporate, labor and other donors that are barred from giving money to political parties.

Beyond the game of musical chairs taking place between outside and inside groups, the 2014 campaign cycle also saw the advent of new, innovative ways of sharing campaign materials and strategy, from anonymous Twitter profiles that shared polling data, to campaigns’ public dissemination of “B-roll” video footage — shots of candidates smiling, talking to voters and so on — for super PACs to use in their ads.

The Federal Election Commission, the nation’s top campaigns watchdog, has not been overly aggressive pursuing potential violations of the coordination ban. According to the commission’s Democratic Chair Ann Ravel, the FEC has looked in to potentially illegal coordination with outside groups a total of 29 times, but in each case the politically divided agency has failed to muster the four votes necessary to begin an investigation.

Ravel told Sunlight that the reasons for the “no-action” votes have varied from case to case. The FEC will likely face more votes in the future. Candidates face increasing pressure to maintain a super PAC arm if they want to be taken seriously, according to panelists.

Some members in Congress are taking aim at the lose restrictions on federal candidates and their so-called “buddy PACs.” Congressional Democrats marked the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court decision by introducing a dozen bills aimed at money in politics reforms, as Paul Blumenthal of the Huffington Post reported. Among the recent flurry of legislation are two bills introduced by Reps. David Price, D-N.C., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and co-written by the campaign finance reform group Democracy 21 that would clamp down on the free sharing of personnel and strategy between inside and outside groups.

A similar iteration of that bill, introduced during the last Congress, died in the House Administration Committee without gaining traction.