Thursday, January 7, 2016
Hey, I Didn’t Say That
Super PACs were born to attack, giving plausible deniability to the candidates who benefit most from such negative advertising against opponents. After all, the candidate is not supposed to control messages from such Super PACs. PACs are a bit different from their bigger more malignant brothers. “Technically known as independent expenditure-only committees, super PACs may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals, then spend unlimited sums to overtly advocate for or against political candidates. Unlike traditional PACs, super PACs are prohibited from donating money directly to political candidates, and their spending must not be coordinated with that of the candidates they benefit. Super PACs are required to report their donors to the Federal Election Commission on a monthly or semiannual basis – the super PAC's choice – in off-years, and monthly in the year of an election.” OpenSecrets.org. Thus, the differences between PACs and Super PACs are significant.
Today, I am focusing on those lovely Super PACS and their use in this presidential election. Ever since the Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010, money has flowed into Super PACS. As of the end of December 2015, “1,625 groups organized as super PACs have reported total receipts of $320,812,012 and total independent expenditures of $95,030,951 in the 2016 cycle.” OpenSecrets.org. Wow!
But we are perfectly safe against election abuses, particularly the rule against direct coordination between candidate and sympathetic Super PACs, right? After all, we have a watchdog agency aimed an enforcing that law. “‘The likelihood of the laws being enforced is slim,’ said [Ann M. Ravel (Democrat – Chair of the Federal Election Commission)]. ‘I never want to give up, but I'm not under any illusions. People think the FEC is dysfunctional. It's worse than dysfunctional.’
“The six-member commission is divided evenly between Democratic and Republican appointees. Tie votes along party lines on key issues are common and reflect disagreements over the agency's mission, its interpretation of rules and their enforcement.
“In the wake of the 2010 Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case — it allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited funds in support of political candidates — the lines drawn by campaign finance laws have become blurred and bent.
“Commissioners disagree over Ravel's views, the [NY] Times reported… ‘The few rules that are left, people feel free to ignore,’ said Ellen L. Weintraub, a Democratic commissioner.
“‘Congress set this place up to gridlock,’ said Lee E. Goodman, a Republican commissioner. ‘This agency is functioning as Congress intended. The democracy isn't collapsing around us.’” New York Times, May 2, 2015. Perpetual stalemate? Unregulated campaign spending? Strangely, with all this, Super PACs have had less of an influence on the contests in this presidential cycle than expected, but there is a strong wind about to blow across the campaigns.
“[E]ven with unmet expectations, there is still time for them to find a niche in negative advertising… Months after it became clear that super PACs could not, in fact, supplant the core functions of a campaign, several of the unlimited-money groups that are backing presidential candidates are reverting to 2012 form — with a series of blistering attack ads.
“Super PACs supporting the campaign of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas are set to unload on Senator Marco Rubio of Florida on television in Iowa and elsewhere. Jeb Bush’s supportive super PAC, Right to Rise USA, ran its first negative ad against Mr. Rubio shortly before the new year. Mr. Bush has also signaled potential coming lines of attack against Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, pointing out the state’s credit downgrades during his tenure and contrasting that record with his own… So far the group supporting Mr. Bush has attacked Mr. Rubio, Donald J. Trump and Mr. Cruz, but it is unclear how much it will expand its target list.
“But it has become clear, as the calendar pages turn and as the race enters the final weeks before voting in Iowa and New Hampshire, that the tone has become far nastier and that it is increasingly taking place on the air…. [Super PACs] might still prove effective at the task of negative campaigning, sparing the candidates from doing it themselves and saving them the harder-to-raise, limited campaign funds in the process.” First Draft, New York Times, January 4th. So standby for mud. Lots of it. And candidates will not, of course – wink, wink! – drive such negative Super PAC advertising. They can pretend that they are not responsible for that mud!
Regardless of the pervasiveness of Super PACs, their very presence has turned our elections into massive financial events, with cash being the driving force behind just about every contest. “In 2012, Les Moonves, president and chief executive of CBS, memorably said, ‘Super PACs may be bad for America, but they’re very good for CBS.’… His views appear unchanged. In a February  investor call, Moonves predicted ‘strong growth with the help of political spending,’ particularly on television. He added dryly, ‘looking ahead, the 2016 presidential election is right around the corner and, thank God, the rancor has already begun.’” Intercept.com, May 22nd.
The numbers noted above have proven Ms. Moonves wildly correct. And Super PACs have to pay through the nose for media space and time. “While candidates are guaranteed by law access to the lowest unit advertising rates, super PACs must pay whatever the market will bear. There are also more super PACs than ever, each competing for time slots and driving prices higher.
“In some parts of Iowa and New Hampshire, super PACs are paying almost nine times what a campaign would pay — largely erasing even the advantage held by a group like Right to Rise, which is supporting Mr. Bush and has raised more than $100 million, when compared with the smaller amounts of hard money raised by individual campaigns.” New York Times, December 22, 2015. Gee, that sounds fair and healthy!
With money being the campaign driver, it is beyond obvious that (1) candidates without money don’t stand a chance and (2) those who have to money to contribute the money have more power than ever before. There have been some new methods to side-step this reality. Donald Trump has been able to harness outrageous-to-generate-free-publicity, and some candidates (e.g., Bernie Sanders) have used the mere existence of Super PACs to generate grassroots contributions. But in the end, money talks… screams actually, and with House elections every two years, our Congress lives with outstretched hands.
I’m Peter Dekom, and guess what we call governments effectively run by the moneyed elites? Plutocracies!