by Marian Wang ProPublica
Ask any campaign-finance expert about super PACs and you'll likely keep hearing one word: "coordination." That's because Super PACs -- the super-powered groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money from anyone -- have just one crucial restriction on their powers: By law, they're not supposed to coordinate with candidates.
Think that sounds clear? Think again.
"The restrictions on interactions between candidates and Super PACs are far more modest than the public believes," said Paul Ryan, a lawyer with Campaign Legal Center, a campaign-finance advocacy group.
So long as candidates and Super PACs don't discuss the particulars of their election spending -- such as exactly where or how long their election ads will run -- they're free to discuss strategy and candidates can even help fundraise. One result: A presidential candidate can ask supporters -- even his own father -- to give to a Super PAC without it being "coordinated." Or a group could plan to produce a "fully coordinated" ad with a candidate that it argues is uncoordinated.
"Coordination limits are essentially a joke if you want to avoid them," said Michael Franz, an associate professor of government at Bowdoin College.
At least one professional joke-teller agrees: Comedian Stephen Colbert recently seized on the issue, ridiculing how some groups seem to be cutting it laughably close with the law.
Fundamentally, coordination rules are no laughing matter. Just ask the Supreme Court, which ruled in Citizens United that as long as money is spent independently of candidates -- that is, without coordination -- corporate and union donations are legal because they "do not give rise to corruption." With that important restriction, corporations and unions were given free rein to spend as much as they want on elections.
The problem, says Ryan, is that the current coordination rules are so limited the Supreme Court was "either being disingenuous or na´ve."
We've pulled together a list to explain what the fuss is all about -- six examples of what common sense might suggest is coordination, while the rules suggest otherwise:
1) The rise of candidate-specific super PACs
While Super PACs began forming in the lead up to the 2010 midterm elections, the big fad so far this year has been the formation of Super PACs dedicated to specific candidates.
Obama, Romney, Perry, Cain, Huntsman, Bachmann -- all the major candidates have at least one supporting them now. The groups are often set up by former aides, former campaign managers or close confidantes familiar with both the candidate's messaging and talking points.
According to Democracy 21, a campaign-finance reform group, these close ties to the candidates make candidate-specific Super PACs illegal, offering a "false veneer of 'independence.'" But so far, the Federal Election Commission -- the agency that enforces campaign finance law and regulation -- hasn't issued a single rule that specifically pertains to Super PACs, let alone these candidate-specific groups.
2) Cooperative fundraising, uncoordinated spending
Of course, some candidates now have more than one candidate-specific group -- and they may trust certain groups with their messaging more than others. So what's a candidate to do? Endorse one and help fundraise, of course.
In guidance handed down by the FEC in July, the commission allowed candidates to help fundraise for the supposedly independent groups, on the premise that it was, after all, only coordinated spending that was banned.
The FEC did place a few restrictions: Candidates still can't solicit unlimited donations or corporate donations to the Super PACs, but they can ask for contributions within the traditional $5,000 contribution limits that apply to direct donations. Whether that limit is meaningful is up for debate -- donors can still give as much as they want.
Democrats -- namely, Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Nancy Pelosi -- promptly embraced the ruling by raising money for a Democratic-leaning Super PAC.
Meanwhile, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has given his blessing to one of the Super PACs specifically set up to support him. He's even spoken at the independent group's fundraising events.
3) Uncoordinated father and son
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman may be low in the polls, but at least he's got a pro-Huntsman super PAC on his side -- and a billionaire father, Jon Huntsman Sr., who's already provided funding for the Super PAC, Our Destiny.
According to the New York Times, the younger Huntsman's aides and supporters "have placed increasing hope that Mr. Huntsman's father would shovel enough money into Our Destiny" to sustain the ad campaign launched by the group last week -- a sticky situation, seeing as the elder Huntsman, founder of Huntsman Chemicals, "has been unwilling to do so without being asked."
If Huntsman the candidate does ask, he should watch his wording: "Dad, will you support me by giving this Super PAC $5,000?" -- followed by a wink, a nudge, and a follow-up conversation with a super PAC staffer -- might be just enough non-coordination to get the millions that the Super PAC needs without raising hackles at the FEC.
And if that's the case, it may only be Huntsman Jr.'s pride that gets in the way: The Times reports that he's been reluctant to ask.
4) An uncoordinated marriage
This may not come as news to some people, but marriages can also be uncoordinated! Just ask Janie Waltz, treasurer of a super PAC called Heartland Empowered Action Fund. Waltz -- the only official listed for the super PAC -- registered with the FEC at the very end of 2010, not long after her husband, John Waltz, lost a Congressional bid.
But now John Waltz, a Democrat and veteran from Michigan, is a candidate yet again. He announced in August that he's challenging Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, for his seat in the House. His wife is still heading up the Super PAC. So far, the PAC doesn't seem to have paid for much beyond upkeep for the group itself -- fundraising expenses, office supplies, and payroll -- and no one has raised a formal objection to the uncoordinated spousal setup. We've asked Janie Waltz for comment but have not received a response.
5) 'Fully coordinated' uncoordinated ads
Last month, Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska appeared in a political ad. No, not an ad by his own campaign, but a supposedly uncoordinated ad paid for by Democratic Party officials.
The ad prompted American Crossroads, a Republican-leaning Super PAC set up by Karl Rove, to ask the FEC for permission to do the same -- to create advertisements that "would be fully coordinated" [PDF] with candidates "insofar as each Member would be consulted on the advertisement script and would then appear in the advertisement."
How can "fully coordinated" ads not run afoul of the limits on coordination?
The FEC has a two-part coordination test that's as detailed as it is permissive: The first part is whether groups and candidates have conducted themselves in a way that's coordinated, such as discussing the particulars of an ad buy. The second part is a more complicated test that looks at the timing to an election and the content of the ad, such as whether it essentially advocates for or against a candidate.
In its request, American Crossroads announced its intent to fully coordinate its ad with a candidate, but argued that the ad it intends to produce could also be interpreted as an issue ad that happens to improve the public image of a candidate for office, but not an ad that advocates for the candidate's election.
The request was spoofed by Stephen Colbert in a must-read comment letter to the FEC. The issue has yet to be decided by the commission.
6) No need for coordination anyway
Whether or not its their intent, groups and candidates have increasingly sidestepped even the loose restrictions in a rather obvious way. Many groups have simply published the specifics of their spending on their websites or through news reports. A few examples, emphasis ours:
On the pro-Huntsman group's latest ad buy, as reported in The Hill:
According to Our Destiny spokesman Brian Nick, the ad will start airing statewidein New Hampshire Tuesday morning. "The ad is a substantial buy that will run statewide in New Hampshire on broadcast and cable," according to Nick.
On a pro-Perry group's ad blitz in Iowa, reported by CNN:
Ads will begin airing in Iowa on Wednesday on broadcast networks in Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and Omaha, as well as on cable stations in eight cities. The ad buy in Iowa costs $202,000.
On ads launched by a pro-Obama super PAC in July, as reported in the News & Observer:
The Democratic group, called Priorities USA Action, began running a commercial in five key battle ground states - Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Virginia as well as North Carolina. The group said it plans to run the ad for two weeks.
What this means is that even the logistics that candidates are barred from coordinating behind closed doors are -- in a practical sense -- entirely possible to coordinate out in the open.
"This is a way to communicate information without running afoul of coordination rules," said Ryan. "The rules are largely rendered meaningless by the way campaigns are now run."
A New Jersey Rep. spent $9000 in campaign funds to take his family to a donor's wedding in Scotland, the Star-Ledger reports.
According to a review of campaign finance records by Matt Friedman of the Ledger, Rep. Rob Andrews (D) used $7,725 of campaign funds to stay in a five-star hotel in Edinburgh for three nights in June with his family. He also spent $463 on a china set from Bloomingdale's as a gift for the couple, and another $953 on miscellaneous expenses from the trip, like cab rides and meals.
The trip was part of a longer trip to Europe for Andrews, his wife and two teenage daughters, and the stop in Edinburgh was the only part paid for by the campaign. Andrews defended the expenses because it was for a donor and volunteer adviser, which means that he can call it a political event.
"We have legal advice, and before we make any expenditure like that we listen to legal advice," he told the Ledger. "We're convinced this is an appropriate expenditure to thank and support someone who has given us a lot of time and effort."
But, from the Ledger, Andrews has used campaign funds for other iffy expenditures:
Also in June, Andrews' campaign spent more than $10,000 on a party at his Haddon Heights home to celebrate his 20 years in Congress and his daughter's high school graduation. And his campaign has made tens of thousands of dollars in donations to Philadelphia theaters -- sometimes within months of another daughter appearing in one of their productions.
In 2009, CREW also filed an FEC complaint against Andrews for using $1,000 in campaign funds to buy clothing after an airline lost his luggage. He wound up reimbursing the campaign.
I've wondered about this for a week or two. And I haven't known quite what to make of it or how to express it. It didn't start with this pepper spray incident at UC Davis. But that sort of crystallized it further in my mind: the core message about[...]
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From TPM Reader BP ...The anti-Gingrich ad just writes itself. Gingrich wants to fire Dad and hire his 12 year old son to do the same job at a lower pay. Genius. That will get our economy turned around.How soon until Romney or the others start[...]
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From Econ4.org, a group that's devoted to building an alternative to the economics orthodoxy that the economy is about Wall Street and not about the well-being of working people, a statement that's been signed by 170 economists so far:
We are economists who oppose ideological cleansing in the economics profession. Equally we oppose political cleansing in the vital debate over the causes and consequences of our current economic crisis.
We support the efforts of the Occupy Wall Street movement across the country and across the globe to liberate the economy from the short-term greed of the rich and powerful ?one percent?.
We oppose cynical and perverse attempts to misuse our police officers and public servants to expel advocates of the public good from our public spaces.
We extend our support to the vision of building an economy that works for the people, for the planet, and for the future, and we declare our solidarity with the Occupiers who are exercising our democratic right to demand economic and social justice.
November 13, 2011
Brave New Foundation (BNF) has launched a new campaign that lets you vote for who you think is the most dangerous member of the top 1 percent. Included among the nominees are oil billionaires and right-wing magnates Charles & David Koch, JP MorganChase CEO Jamie Rubin, and Goldman Sachs’s Lloyd Blankfein. Brave New Foundation will make a series of videos investigating the members of the one percent who get the most votes. BNF has made a promotional video for the campaign. Watch it:
During a press conference last week, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) was asked about what he thinks about the protests about economic inequality across the nation. “We live in a country where the wealthiest have never paid lower income taxes. Where the gap between the top one percent and the rest of Americans has never been wider,” replied Shumlin. “I think whenever you have in a democracy, people standing up saying, hey, what about me? We, the 99 percent are getting left behind while the top 1 percent seems to garner more and more power and more and more wealth, then it’s a good thing for Americans, it’s a good thing for our democracy. My only surprise is that it took so long.” Watch it:
The preferable treatment that investment income receives in the tax code is one of the factors driving the income inequality and galvanizing the Occupy Wall Street movement. Because the capital gains tax is capped at 15 percent, ?anyone making more than $34,500 a year in wages and salary is taxed at a higher rate than a billionaire is taxed on untold millions in capital gains.?
The reason this low rate helps create an income divide is that capital gains are made almost exclusively by the wealthy. In fact, ?over the past 20 years, more than 80 percent of the capital gains income realized in the United States has gone to 5 percent of the people.” And the concentration is actually far greater than that, as half of all capital gains are made by the richest 0.1 percent of Americans:
Income and wealth disparities become even more absurd if we look at the top 0.1% of the nation’s earners– rather than the more common 1%. The top 0.1%– about 315,000 individuals out of 315 million– are making about half of all capital gains on the sale of shares or property after 1 year; and these capital gains make up 60% of the income made by the Forbes 400.
It’s crystal clear that the Bush tax reduction on capital gains and dividend income in 2003 was the cutting edge policy that has created the immense increase in net worth of corporate executives, Wall St. professionals and other entrepreneurs.
This is why the various Republican plans floated to reduce or eliminate the capital gains tax are folly. Doing so only benefits the very wealthy, who have already been the main beneficiaries of the tax cuts package enacted by the Bush administration. Remember, it was President Reagan — the patron saint of today’s conservatives — who completely equalized the tax treatment of capital gains and wages, taxing them at the same exact rate. Since then, the capital gains tax has been steadily eroded, as the richest Americans have steadily increased the gap between themselves and the rest of the country.
This weekend at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada, ThinkProgress asked Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) what an attack on Iran over its nuclear program would do to the Green Movement there. “They might be supportive,” he said, without offering any evidence of how he knew this to be the case.
Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), who along with McCain led the American delegation to the Halifax forum, later jumped in to answer the question as well. While Udall wondered whether an attack would “create a nationalistic fervor” (Iranian human rights activists and those close to the Green Movement think it will), he said “the benefits” of military strikes on Iran “are very, very significant”:
UDALL: This, if it arrives at our doorsteps will be one of the most weighty decisions that any of us would have to make if in fact the United States were involved in such an effort. My analysis is in the short term, there would be a price to pay but also an advantage gain. The price to pay would be oil prices rising, perhaps proxy attacks around the world on the part of non-state actors that the Iranians immorally deploy. I think in the medium term, the benefits are very, very significant. You would see the Middle East not in a nuclear arms race, an entire region destabilized.
Watch the clip:
It appears that Udall believes that attacking Iran would prevent it from developing nuclear weapons and thus ward off a regional arms race. However, the reality is that in all likelihood, bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities would have the opposite effect in only delaying an Iranian nuclear weapons capacity, an analysis that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta agreed with earlier this month. And if anything, attacking Iran would, as one DOD official said, ?incentivize the Iranians to go all the way to weaponize? their nuclear material.
During a roundtable in South Carolina on Veterans’ Day, Mitt Romney floated the idea of partially privatizing the veterans health care system, saying, “Sometimes you wonder if there would be some way to introduce some private-sector competition, somebody else that could come in and say, you know, that each soldier gets X thousand dollars attributed to them, and then they can choose whether they want to go in the government system or in a private system with the money that follows them.”
Veterans groups swiftly condemned the proposal, and today Romney himself backed away from privatization in an interview with the Nashua Telegraph:
ROMNEY: I have no proposal of that nature [to privatize the VA]. We has a group of veterans and said, ‘tell me about the quality of your care.’ Some were concerned about the quality of their health care. I said, ‘what kind of options do you have, what do you think about a system that let you go to private as well as VA hospitals?’ The response was mixed, but I don’t have any proposal of that nature. We have a VA system that needs to be improved and I’ve got no plans to change that other than to make it better and to invest more money in providing for our veterans.
Romney’s characterization of veterans’ reactions is rose-colored to say the least. In 2008 — when then-GOP presidential nominee offered a very similar proposal — AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars argued that while veterans should have access to private care, providing ?rural veterans greater access to VA-sponsored care exclusively through private providers? would undermine the existing health care system. In their annual report, “The Independent Budget,” the groups argued that the VA?s “specialized health-care programs” would “suffer irreparable impact by the loss of veterans from those programs” and argued that the prosthetic research program “would lose focus and purpose were service-connected and other enrolled veterans no longer present in VA health care.”
The fully integrated veterans’ health care structure of doctors and hospitals actually provides veterans with benefits that are the envy of the rest of the health care system. A study by the RAND Corporation found that ?VA patients were more likely to receive recommended care? and ?received consistently better care across the board, including screening, diagnosis, treatment and follow up.” So Romney is right to back away from efforts to privatize the system that already delivers ?higher quality of care? than private providers. Now if only he would apply that same logic to some of his other health care proposals.