Sunday, April 29, 2012

Super PACs and the law of intended consequences

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By Georgia Logothetis

As a percentage of the total voting population, campaign donors are a rare breed. In October of 2011, President Barack Obama's campaign passed the 1 million donor mark for his reelection campaign (he had some 3 million donors in 2008). Even if one were to add up the total number of donors from all the presidential campaigns this cycle, the number would be minuscule compared the hundreds of million eligible voters.

Whittle down that number to those who actually bankroll the majority of campaign funds with max out checks and bundling and the number gets even smaller. Whittle that number down to those who are substantially bankrolling Super Pacs and we're down to, as Ari Berman has pointed out, the .0000063 percent:
Those are the 196 individual donors who have provided nearly 80 percent of the money raised by super PACs in 2011 by giving $100,000 or more each.
Most Super Pac donors also max out to a candidate's political campaign. That's the way the system is crafted. That's the way it's supposed to work.

For all the mouth-agape horror at the avalanche of money that's blanketed the 2012 election campaign in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, no one can seriously claim surprise that America's modern political system has finally been fully exposed for the plutocracy that it really is. The laws of that political system are such that money begets power, which begets money, which in turn begets power again...on and on in an ever-expanding cycle whose sphere of influence grows while the number of players remains relatively constant.

Speaking of plutocrats, this weekend, conservative pundit George Will defended the notion of Super PACs, claiming that clearly they don't wield the awesome power many claim because they haven't been able to produce a "king" in the Republican nomination process:
The Post, dismayed about super PACs, reports "a rarefied group of millionaires and billionaires acting as kingmakers in the GOP contest, often helping to decide, with a simple transfer of money, which candidate might survive another day." Kingmakers? Where's the king?If kingmaking refers to, say, Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino owner, keeping Newt Gingrich's candidacy afloat with large infusions to the super PAC supporting Gingrich, then kingmaking isn't what it used to be. Notice that the fellow with the most muscular super PAC, Mitt Romney, has failed to vanquish a singularly weak set of rivals. Might the power of political dollars be finite, and utility of the last dollar be less than that of the first? Who knew?
That's quite the silly argument Will presents, though not entirely unexpected given his track record. So Super PACs aren't influential because the GOP race is still in disarray because candidates like Newt Gingrich are still in the race because of ... their Super PAC? Or is Will claiming that Super PACs haven't made a "king" in the GOP primary, although the race he chooses to examine is one in which every major candidate has a Super PAC?
It's quite a testament to the modern state of campaign mud wrestling that you can throw a handful of billionaires in the ring and, surprise, surprise, you may have to wait for them to duke it out for a while. And that's not even factoring in the fact that Will's entire column misses the main issue: it's not about how competent campaigns and their PACs are in handling the millions that are thrown their way; it's that the mere fact that so few are allowed such disproportionate influence in campaigns is repugnant to our notion of fairness and democracy.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, two of the four dissenting justices in Citizens United, indicated in late February that they would like to see Citizens United revisited:
Ginsburg references the current state of affairs in elections. She says, "in light of the huge sums currently deployed to buy candidates' allegiance" the Court should have the opportunity to explore whether Citizens United "should continue to hold sway."
I doubt that Justices Scalia, Roberts, Thomas, Alito and Kennedy didn't foresee that their ruling would result in a casino owner doubling down on Newt Gingrich's candidacy with repeated $10 million bets, or that Super PACs would raise more money from fewer donors than many previous presidential campaigns did in entire cycles. It was clear the moment the news broke that Citizens United didn't just change the letter of the law, it changed the entire atmosphere of our political process.
Lawrence Lessig points out that the myopic focus on reversing Citizens United is misguided:
Reversing this flood of political cash would be enough to satisfy most reformers, but not Lessig, who spoke last week at the Center for Public Integrity offices in D.C. Overturning the ruling "terrifies" him, he said, because "it imagines somehow that on January 20, 2010 – the day before Citizens United was decided – our democracy was fine and Citizens United broke it. But of course, the democracy was already broken."
It was against that context of broken campaign laws that the Supreme Court decided Citizens United. The Court knew that the decision would be act like a starter pistol for those who waited on the sidelines to take advantage of not just the laws involved in that case, but other laws which permitted secret donations and more. Bundlers raising half a million dollars each, corporations itching to explicitly take down candidates, and yes, the candidates themselves all knew the impact of the Court's decision on how campaigns are financed and how elections are won: it didn't just create new rules, it gave a nod of approval to stretching old ones to their limit.
Plutocracy 2012 is less of a surprise and more like the culminating act of the play chronicling the degradation of our political process, a dollar at a time. Playing out on the stage for all the world to see is a marionette democracy, where billionaires and millionaires manipulate puppet candidates to bob their heads up and down or left or right on command while the audience and the media sit in suspended disbelief about the lack of coordination between candidates and the groups that advocate (often verbatim) on their behalf.

It's a breathtaking spectacle. It's the greatest show on earth of power and control. And judging from the reluctance by either party to seriously and aggressively tackle true campaign finance reform, it looks like we'll be in for encore performances in untold election cycles to come.

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