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The New York Times (Editorial) - The Line at the ‘Super PAC' Trough

February 15, 2014
In The News

By the Editorial Board

If you need something out of Washington and want to give a satchel of cash to a political candidate, no need to give it directly to the candidate. Federal law limits those contributions to $2,600 anyway.The thing to do is to give the money to the candidate’s “super PAC,” where no limits apply, to pay for attack ads against the candidate’s opponent.

That’s the path chosen by John Childs, a private-equity investor, who gave $250,000 to Senator Mitch McConnell’s super PAC, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership. (Could it have anything to do with Mr. McConnell’s staunch opposition to a tax increase on hedge fund managers, favored by President Obama and Democrats?) Joseph Craft, a billionaire coal executive, gave $100,000, and Donald Trump gave $50,000 to the same group.

Naturally, Mr. McConnell’s Democratic opponent in the Kentucky Senate race, Alison Lundergan Grimes, set up her own super PAC, We Are Kentucky, to attract money from those on the left who would love to oust the Senate minority leader. The United Auto Workers gave it $100,000, as did the big plumbing and pipe-fitting union.

This election year will be the moment when individual candidate super PACs — a form of legalized bribery — become a truly toxic force in American politics. The giant ideological super PACs formed by political operatives like Karl Rove spent hundreds of millions in 2012, but didn’t produce the conservative revolution demanded by the big donors. So now the torrent of cash is heading toward smaller groupsset up to promote a single candidate or, more often, to trash that candidate’s opponent.

Dozens of these groups have already been formed, and political professionals predict that virtually every Senate race this year, and many contested House races, will have one or more. They can accept unlimited contributions, and thanks to the Citizens United decision, such donations can come from unions and corporations, too. Strictly speaking, these groups can have no contact with the candidate, but that prohibition is a joke. Most of them use the same voter lists as the campaigns, make the same points in their ads, and often are run by cronies of the candidate.

The super PAC of Senator David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, was set up Charles Spies, whose law firm represents Mr. Vitter. The Baton Rouge Advocate reported that two of the fund-raisers for the super PAC are also paid fund-raisers of Mr. Vitter’s campaign. If that’s not coordination, it’s hard to imagine what is. But that kind of thing goes on all the time, because there’s little enforcement of the rules by the toothless Federal Election Commission.

Democrats have eagerly joined the cash race, and so far their super PACs are raising more money than those of Republicans. Priorities USA Action, Mr. Obama’s super PAC in 2012, recently announcedthat it would switch its allegiance to Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016, and that it plans to surpass the $67 million it spent on attack ads against Mitt Romney.

Remember the Nixon campaign’s safe in 1972, so overstuffed with cash and checks that his buddies barely knew how to spend all the money? That’s what these super PACs have become, violating the intent of all the post-Watergate reforms.
Once again, Congress will have to step in to stop the corruption, and fortunately a good reform vehicle exists: the Empowering Citizens Act, a bill introduced by two House Democrats, David Price and Chris Van Hollen, which would limit the spending of super PACs closely aligned to a campaign.

The bill’s language still needs improvement to rein in groups like Priorities USA Action, which is not as clearly allied with Mrs. Clinton’s aides as, say, Mr. Vitter’s group. But the act still represents the best chance for ridding politics of special-interest cash and preventing another era of scandal.