Monday, May 14, 2012

Money Walks

Doyle McManus had a pretty good column up this weekend on the money being spent for campaign advertising by groups not officially part of a particular candidate's campaign. He concentrated not so much on the super PACs unleashed by Citizen's United, but on a specific variant of those groups:

The television commercial is designed to spark outrage. "Billions of taxpayer dollars spent on green energy went to jobs in foreign countries," it intones. "The Obama administration admitted the truth — that $2.3 billion of tax credits went overseas, while millions of Americans can't find a job…. American taxpayers are paying to send their own jobs to foreign countries."

But the widely broadcast anti-Obama ad, paid for by a conservative group called Americans for Prosperity, is highly misleading — a slick pastiche of untruths, half-truths and exaggerations. And it's a prime example of what's gone wrong with political advertising.

Who put up the $6.1 million to air the Americans for Prosperity commercial? None of your business. ...

That's the problem with the independent committees gearing up to flood the airwaves with "issue ads." Because their backers get to remain largely anonymous, they don't seem to feel much duty to stick to the truth.

... It doesn't have to answer to voters or run for reelection; its constituents are the unnamed donors that paid for the ad.

Americans for Prosperity has declared itself a tax-exempt "social welfare organization" under the Internal Revenue code, which means its official purpose is to educate the public about civic issues. The group carefully skirts the line by not advocating explicitly for a candidate as it chastises Obama. Because of that, it can call itself a social welfare organization and get away with not divulging its donors. ...

This isn't about partisanship, though. Obama's campaign advertising has stepped over the line too. His campaign recently ran a commercial accusing Romney of sending U.S. jobs overseas when he was an executive at Bain Capital, but two of the ad's three examples occurred after Romney left the firm.

The difference is that when a candidate's campaign makes a spurious charge, voters can call him on it. When an independent committee makes a spurious charge, who you gonna call?

It wouldn't be tough to solve the problem. Congress could pass a law requiring groups that wage political campaigns to identify their donors (although so far, Republicans have blocked Democrats' efforts to do that). Or the Internal Revenue Service could crack down and yank the tax-exempt status of groups that are political action committees in flimsy disguise. But the IRS moves slowly, at least on an issue as sensitive as this.
[Emphasis added.]

Keep in mind that this just one part of the campaign spending going on right now, six months before the election. The more regulated super PACs are out in force as well right now. Open Secrets has a tally up, along with a very nifty 'interactive' chart showing just who is spending on both sides of the aisle and for what. The sums are staggering:

Expenditures by super PACS were expected to hit the $100 million mark today [May 10], further proof that outside spending will far outstrip anything seen in previous election cycles.

Here's one way to look at how much more is being spent in the 2012 cycle: A single super PAC, the pro-Mitt Romney Restore Our Future, has already spent more -- $44.5 million -- than all outside groups combined had spent by this point in 2008. That 2008 number, about $30.9 million, is roughly one-quarter of this cycle's overall outside spending total of $122.7 million.

And the $100 million spent just by super PACs this cycle is already $30 million more than the entire sum of all outside spending in the 2004 election, the year that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth 527 organization made a splash with its attacks on Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. ...

In past election cycles, there might be signs that a big spending push was coming, or that a campaign might be gearing up its fundraising operation, or the power of a traditional PAC could be seen by the cash it had on hand, [Bob]Biersack [of the Center for Responsive Politics] said. But the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision and other cases removed limits on how much can be contributed to an outside spending group, and by what source. Now, a group can have a sudden impact on a race because of a single large check from a company or union treasury, or an individual. The coming months won't be defined so much by the cash super PACs currently have on hand -- but rather, what money may materialize without warning, Biersack said.
[Emphasis added]

In other words, we can expect as much as half a billion dollars being expended on the campaign this time around. That's a lot of money, and most folks have no idea where it's coming from.

Our elections have become bidding wars.

That's not a good sign.

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