WASHINGTON — For Buddy Roemer, it’s all about the Benjamins. But he’ll only accept one at a time.
The former governor and congressman from Louisiana and current presidential candidate has capped his campaign contributions at just $100 per donor in a symbolic move to stand up against corporate corruption in government.
“I came to the decision that Washington wasn’t broken: it was bought,” Roemer said. “The only way to be president was to be free to lead. I decided to set a very low margin, $100, and ask every American to consider joining the election long before he votes.”
As of Feb. 13, the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics reported that more than $71 million has been spent by outside organizations. But Roemer not only limits contributions, he also refuses to take any money from Super PACs, which he views as illegal and corrupt.
Since the start of the primaries, Roemer has had little success. The Associated Press reported he received 945 votes in New Hampshire, his best state. And while he understands that lifting the self-imposed contribution cap could raise his profile – and vote total — Roemer remains steadfast.
“Is one of my options to do what it takes to win, and then change? No. Then nobody will follow you, you have to win like you will serve,” Roemer said. “And when you do, Congress [will] look at you and say ‘wow, the son of a gun did it. I am going to listen to what he has to say.’ That’s how you change the system, top down meets bottom up.”
Spending in a post-citizens united world
A landmark ruling by the Supreme Court in January 2010 paved the way for increased corporate contributions in political campaigns. In Citizens United vs. FEC, the 5-4 majority ruled that limits on independent political spending by corporations and unions were a violation of free speech. Under the decision, corporate campaign spending limits could only be enforced on direct donations to a candidate or political party. The rights afforded by this decision were extended to individuals by another Supreme Court case, Speech Now vs. FEC.
Previous to that ruling, corporations and unions were prohibited from using unlimited general treasury funds to support independent expenditures through political action committees. Furthermore, groups were barred from paying for “electioneering communications” that clearly identify a candidate. The lifting of these restrictions gave rise to independent-expenditure-only committees, more commonly referred to as “Super PACs.“ These groups are free to accept unlimited funds from donors provided that they do not cooperate with candidates or political parties. While they cannot donate directly to campaigns or parties, they promote or attack candidates and issues through advertisements.
Some suggest that this had an immediate effect on the 2010 mid-term election cycle. Research by the Wesleyan Media Project showed that independent groups spent 350 percent more on advertising that year than in the 2008 House races. Furthermore, the Center for Responsive Politics found that two thirds of independent expenditures during the midterm elections came from organizations “freed” by the two court decisions.
But while some fear an influx of corporate money into the election cycle, John Samples, the director of the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute’s Center for Representative Government, sees the information – much of it coming via television commercials — as a service to the voters who can now make better educated decisions.
“The thing to keep in mind is that if there are increases [in independent expenditures], it’s not money spread around in suitcases in the office, it translates to some type of political activity, political speech,” Samples said. “That means that you have more speech. Sometimes that irritates people, but it’s also true that the evidence [suggests] that more speech leads to more informed voters. ”
“If you demand equality of participation, equality of speech, equality of funding of speech, you have two choices,” Samples said. “You can control speech by those people who have too much speech, and they aren’t going to have free speech…or you could do nothing to them and build up speech by giving people who have less speech more money.”
Candidates and super PACs: a calculated friendship
The main stipulation for those looking to bypass contribution limits is the issue of coordination, as the Federal Election Commission prohibits candidates and Super PACs from coordinating on independent expenditures. But Rick Hasen, an election law specialist who teaches at the University of California, Irvine, believes that the FEC’s rules are ambiguous on what amounts to coordination.
“The rules on coordination right now are full of holes,” he said. “Justice Kennedy [who wrote the majority opinion in the Citizens United case] seems to have an unrealistic view of how independent these groups could be and would be.”
Many leaders of Super PACs have close personal ties with candidates. Winning Our Future, a Super PAC closely associated with Newt Gingrich, employs his former aides. The same holds true for Restore Our Future and Mitt Romney, Red White and Blue Fund and Rick Santorum and Priorities USA Action and President Barack Obama. As long as they hold no official ties to the candidates, they are free to run negative advertisements while candidates benefitting from the attacks can deny direct knowledge.
However, Roemer views this conduct as clear coordination, pointing out that Mitt Romney was forced to backpedal over anti-Gingrich ads put out by a Super PAC during a debate in Concord, N.H.
“[Mitt] loves to give that speech, ‘it wasn’t me. I don’t know anything about that,’” Roemer quips.
“Your PACs are run by your former business partners, by your former campaign manager. You spoke at the fundraiser for the PAC. You work with your PAC to keep hidden who gave you a million dollars…. It’s a joke. Its more coordinated than the five year plan of the Soviet Union used to be.”
Advocates for campaign finance reform are targeting the coordination provisions in Citizens United and the Speech Now case in hopes that they can eliminate Super PACs.
“They are illegal as constituted and practiced and the American public will not allow their republic to be stolen by a damn Super PAC,” Roemer said.
Should we disclose?
Debate swirls around the disclosure rules, which require certain types of organizations to regularly list their donors. Reformers want more expansive disclosure of where these organizations obtain their money, arguing that transparency will act as a deterrent to corruption. However, opponents believe disclosure could lead to intimidation, and that existing laws are sufficient.
All political action committees, including Super PACs, 527s, and party and campaign committees must disclose their donors in line with the FEC’s filing deadlines. But Super PACs are able to take advantage of FEC rules to switch between semi-annual and monthly filings in order to delay disclosure dates. And 501(c)(4) organizations, a political arm of a charitable organization, are exempt from FEC disclosure laws because they operate through the Internal Revenue Service.
Undisclosed money accounted for $136.1 million during the 2010 election cycle mainly due to the success of 501(c)(4)s – the charitable groups’ political wings — according to the Center for Responsive Politics. These organizations, which had not accounted for a significant percentage of spending prior to Citizens United, raised 42% of total outside spending during the 2010 cycle .
Because 501(c)(4)s can use their anonymous donations to fund Super PACs, the concept of disclosure is less than clear. Once these groups donate to Super PACs, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify the specific donors, who might not be aware of how their money was spent.
Election law expert Rick Hasen said that the solution lies in increased disclosure, dismissing the notion that this would create a culture of fear.
“There are many claims made against disclosure, that it is going to chill people’s political activities, subject them to harassment, allow politicians to extort benefits from others, but I don’t see evidence of that,” Hasen said. His evidence comes from legal challenges on the West Coast that he said found that disclosure did not lead to any cases of harassment. “On flip side, we have good evidence that disclosure helps voters make up their minds about how to judge the credibility of information. If voters see an ad criticizing or supporting a candidate, if the voter knows they are paid for by NRA or the Sierra Club, it gives them a clue on how to view [the ad].”
But while former FEC chairman Brad Smith understands these concerns, he believes that advocates of more disclosure do not understand the potential harm.
“[Privacy] is a big right and if we were to announce the Patriot II Act is being introduced in which the government is going to keep track of our political activity [to determine if terrorists were infiltrating government], we would go berserk. But that’s essentially what campaign finance disclosure is at its core,” he said.
Smith believes that voters already are privy to all of the relevant information, as FEC laws require all advertisements to list their sponsor. This information, he argues, provides voters with insights into the motivation behind the communication without forgoing privacy rights.
“These ads have been out there for years, so why the sudden concern? Because there are some people that want to limit political speech and have taken a couple of major defeats in the court and are trying to figure out what’s another way to limit political speech.”
As the race for the Republican nomination for president rages on, Roemer stands alone as the most outspoken candidate on campaign finance reform. But though he remains in the race, Roemer has not been invited any Republican debates due to his low polling figures.
“[We need] full disclosure, quick reporting and broad limits,” he said. “I think there ought to be criminal penalties for violations, there are none now. We ought to take reform more seriously than we do, but these are the kinds of reforms that are essential to restoring balance in the political process.
But while Roemer does not see himself as a one-issue candidate, he believes the best way to ultimately reach the electorate starts with campaign finance reform.
“The issues I really want to talk about are tax reform, jobs reform, trade reform, immigration reform, energy reform, banking reform, health care reform,” he said. “I think this country needs reform with a capital R. But it won’t get done until we do campaign reform. We’ve got to chase the corrupters out of the room and I am so excited about it.”