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Ziebart: Time for a Discussion on Campaign Funds

In nearly every presidential election cycle since Watergate, voters have been barraged with new forms of political advertising funded by a variety of individuals and groups. Since passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (known commonly as McCain-Feingold), this political expression increasingly has been funded by nonparty organizations.

In following the ubiquitous publicity surrounding these campaigns, voters have become familiar with — albeit often confused by — buzzwords and catchphrases such as 527s, soft money, hard money, 501(c)(4)s, independent expenditures, bundling, express advocacy, electioneering communications, issues advocacy and political action committees. The latest entry is “super PACs.” Based on media coverage and survey data, voter impressions of this new catchphrase are decidedly negative.

As executive director of the National Association of Business Political Action Committees — the nation’s only association solely dedicated to advancing business PACs and helping them navigate complex rules and regulations — I am increasingly concerned that the term super PAC, while convenient and catchy, may not provide a distinction sufficient enough for lawmakers and the public to differentiate these groups from others in the campaign finance system.

Nobody seems willing to explain how super PACs operate in our campaign finance system compared to traditional corporate PACs (legally known as “separate segregated funds”) or other hard-money sources painstakingly designed to accommodate, simultaneously, protected speech and the demand for campaign funds.

Indeed, the opposite may be true — some would prefer to lump us together and demagogue all money in politics rather than take the time to make thoughtful distinctions. Many of the same would prefer funding campaigns with taxpayer money and completely removing private donors from the system.

These so-called reformers are using the uproar over super PACs to call for sweeping new campaign finance changes. Using words such as “high-powered” and “high rollers,” they portray super PACs as nefarious and possibly corrupt donors. Their reference to donors “pouring” money into campaigns mischaracterizes such spending and misleads average voters. PACs all too familiar with similar characterizations used to demonize them in the 1980s and 1990s know firsthand the effectiveness of such attacks.

“Reformers” were stung by the rebuke of their positions in the landmark Citizens United decision, but in their zeal to foment opposition to super PACs, they negatively affect the public’s understanding of all PACs. This could have dire consequences for the involvement in our democracy by millions of Americans who express themselves by making voluntary personal contributions to business, labor and ideological PACs.

What we really need is an informed national conversation about the role of money in politics. As part of this conversation, NABPAC members would like the public to know that:

• Traditional PACs remain what they have been since the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974 — highly regulated sources of transparent, voluntarily donated, noncorporate funds given in support of federal candidates struggling to compete in an expensive and multifaceted campaign environment.

• Traditional PACs are allowed only to solicit a specific “restricted class” of individuals within their organizations, and any donations coming from them are entirely voluntary.

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