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Rules of the Game: Democrats' Super PAC Promotion Signals Shift

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Freshman Democrats, including Murphy, appear in an ad touting House Majority PAC. Some watchdog groups say the ad strikes a blow to the chances of changing campaign finance laws.

A recent video starring seven House Democrats promoting the super PAC that helped elect them speaks volumes about how few rules constrain such political action committees — and how wholeheartedly Congress has embraced them.

The video dismayed watchdog groups and not just because it featured personal testimonials from lawmakers thanking the super PAC, despite laws that theoretically require such unrestricted groups to keep candidates at arm’s length. More disturbing, say advocates of stricter rules, was that it trotted out newly elected freshmen — a group that historically tends to champion campaign finance fixes.

“I would have expected them to come to Capitol Hill rallying the cry of campaign finance reform and saying these largely undisclosed or unlimited sources of money have to be reined in,” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. “Instead, what we got are these same freshman Democrats saying that they want to participate in this unlimited money slush fund system; these super PACs are a good deal. I find that very troubling.”

House Majority PAC, which backs Democratic House candidates, released the video last week to demonstrate its success in responding to big-spending conservative super PACs that hammered Democrats in 2010, spokesman Andy Stone said. He said the ad is for “interested parties,” but it clearly targets donors with the message: “With your help, we formed House Majority PAC to fight back.”

Freshman Democrats are featured in the video praising House Majority PAC’s ads on specific issues, such as stem cell research and women’s rights. The PAC raised and spent more than $35 million, public records show, and ended 2012 with $155,000 in the bank. It has already targeted 10 Republicans in the runup to 2014.

Super PAC organizers are “completely confident” that the promotional video violates no election laws, Stone said, and campaign finance experts agree.

The Federal Election Commission allows federal officials to raise money for super PACs and even permits them to appear at such groups’ events, providing they don’t ask donors to give more than the $5,000 maximum that conventional PACs may donate to parties or candidates.

The video features a prominent disclaimer noting that none of the Democrats are “asking for funds or donations.” And no one has charged that it violates rules that bar coordination between candidates and super PACs. But that’s largely because those rules are written so narrowly that they apply only to a 90-day pre-election window and even allow candidates to share vendors with supposedly independent groups.

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