On the surface, Thursday’s Federal Election Commission ruling to rein in super political action committees looks like a victory for tough campaign finance laws. Reform advocates applauded the FEC for telling super PAC organizers that they may not rely on federal officeholders or party officials to raise unlimited donations.
But the FEC’s 6-0 ruling includes a little-noticed provision that frees up federal officials to attend and speak at fundraisers for such big-money PACs, events where PAC organizers may encourage donors to write larger checks than a lawmaker requests.
The idea behind super PACs is that they are not restricted by the contribution limits that apply to donors supporting individual campaigns or traditional PACs. Campaign finance lawyer James Bopp Jr. announced in May that he was creating a new PAC called the Republican Super PAC with the idea that lawmakers would fundraise for it, asking donors to write large checks to the PAC after they had hit donation limits to other campaigns.
Democrats immediately cried foul and asked the FEC to clarify the rules. But it is Capitol Hill Democrats who have jumped in to help super PACs, while Republican officials have steered clear of both Bopp’s PAC and American Crossroads, the powerhouse GOP organization that dominated the 2010 elections.
The Republican National Committee “is not affiliated with, we do not coordinate with and we do not fundraise for super PACs,” RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) likewise does not raise any money for super PACs, a spokesman said. Nor is Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) helping such PACs, according to his staff.
By contrast, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has asked donors to write checks for Majority PAC, one of four Democrat-friendly super PACs set up as a counterweight to American Crossroads. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has also raised money for the pro-Democrat House Majority PAC. Democrats denounced such super PACs in the previous election.
Reid has not changed his position but “wants to make sure that Democrats aren’t caught flat-footed” in 2012, a spokesman said. Democrats “will not unilaterally disarm against Republicans,” Pelosi political director Jennifer Crider said. She added that the money Pelosi collects for the PAC “is legal and fully disclosed to the FEC.”
The Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that corporations and unions can spend unlimited money to influence elections as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates and political parties, which served as the launching point for the super PACs. But the FEC ruled Thursday that lawmakers can only solicit “hard money” donations that don’t exceed $5,000 or come directly from corporate and union treasuries. They cannot ask donors to write bigger checks to the super PACs.
But the FEC’s ruling was only a partial victory for the soft money ban, reform advocates acknowledge. The ruling allows officials to raise hard money for super PACs, and the super PACs themselves may still collect unlimited, unregulated money. That means that technically, donors approached by a Member of Congress may write a checks as large as they like, even if the Member only requests $5,000.
And by giving the green light to fundraising appearances, the FEC thrusts lawmakers into questionable territory, some election lawyers say, because the super PACs are required to operate without coordinating with parties and candidates.
In comments to the FEC, prominent conservative election lawyer Stephen M. Hoersting wrote that “any super PAC that invites candidates to its fundraisers better realize that, should those candidates/attendees be the beneficiary of the super PAC’s advertising, it will accelerate an opponent’s charge of coordination.”
Bopp himself acknowledged that even if those raising money only ask for $5,000 donations, there’s no limit on the size of the check a super PAC ultimately pockets. “A person, as a result of these solicitations, can write whatever check they want,” he said.
Even if national GOP leaders are keeping Bopp’s PAC at arm’s length, Bopp himself is an RNC committeeman, as is the Republican Super PAC’s vice chairman, Solomon Yue. The PAC’s chairman, Roger F. Villere Jr., chairs the Louisiana GOP. Under the FEC ruling, state party officials remain free to raise money for Republican Super PAC.
As soon as donors find out that they are free to give unlimited corporate or union treasury money to his and other super PACs, Bopp predicted, “you can expect these contributions to flow.”