Opinion: Columnists

America can't regulate its way to clean campaigns

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Opinion,David Freddoso,Columnists,Campaign Finance,2014 Elections,Super PACs,Magazine

Last week, something unusual happened in the special election in southwest Florida to replace GOP Rep. Trey Radel. A candidate named Paige Kreegel called one of his Republican primary opponents and left a voice mail message, apologizing in advance for the fact that his own super PAC (which legally, he does not control) would be funding ads against him.

"It's not something I wanted, and not something I can prevent," Kreegel told opponent Curt Clawson. "Anyway, that's the way it is." Clawson's campaign gave the audio to the Tampa Bay Times, which posted it online.

However you interpret this strange message, it's no more strange than the underlying reality that must have made it seem appropriate. It's not just that super PACs are spending more -- that's almost trivial. The problem is that in the modern era of stringent campaign finance law, super PACs and other third-party groups are being set up all over the place as shadow campaigns for particular candidates, all the way down to the House level.

In this particular special House election, two of the three leading candidates, Kreegel and Lizbeth Benacquisto, have "their own" (in the loose sense) third-party groups - known respectively as "Values are Vital" and "The Liberty and Leadership Fund." (Clawson doesn't have one, but he's a self-funder with fewer incentives to create one.)

Liberals have long suffered from the naïve belief that they could regulate their way to a utopian, influence-free campaign system - something our Constitution clearly makes impossible. They offered McCain-Feingold in 2002 as a step toward limiting third-party groups' ability to raise campaign money. What they actually did was lead political groups to adopt different structures (the so-called "527 group" at first) to circumvent the rules. A few court decisions later, little has changed about real third-party groups' activities, but fake third-party groups with sub-rosa affiliations are clearly on the rise.

In the old days, the NRA and the Sierra Club simply ran ads for candidates that agreed with their issues. Today, the third-party groups you're most likely to hear from during election season are not really third parties at all. Each political party has its own shadow structure, and many 2014 Senate candidates in both parties have official-unofficial shadow campaigns.

Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic opponent in Kentucky each have "their own" (in the loose sense) shadow campaigns, known respectively as Kentuckians for Strong Leadership and We are Kentucky. So do Mark Begich, D-Alaska, (Put Alaska First); John Cornyn, R-Texas, (Texans for a Conservative Majority); and Thad Cochran, R-Miss., (Mississippi Conservatives PAC); among others. And as the story above hints, super PAC-mania is spreading even to House races.

When you've reached the contribution limit to your favorite candidate, you can just give to "his" super PAC.

That is all legal. Meanwhile, we're sending people to prison for "swapping" schemes, in which maxed-out donors merely agree each to give to the other's favorite candidate. The IRS is also working obsessively to squelch non-profit voter education and registration drives, especially cracking down on tiny conservative groups with average annual budgets of less than $20,000.

The system of limited contributions is already meaningless. Why not acknowledge reality by scrapping it? Let candidates bring their official-unofficial campaigns out into the open. Let donors give whatever they want. Meanwhile, demand instantaneous transparency for all contributions and expenditures, instead of having candidates file impenetrable 1,000-page quarterly reports.

There are objections to this idea – some of them even worth hearing. But I defy anyone to argue that this would make our campaigns any worse or more corrupt than they are now.

If you still think we can just regulate our way to clean campaigns and stay within constitutional limits, let me just point out that we already tried it your way. That's how we got here.

DAVID FREDDOSO, a Washington Examiner columnist, is the former Editorial Page Editor for the Examiner and the New York Times-bestselling author of "Spin Masters: How the Media Ignored the Real News and Helped Re-elect Barack Obama." He has also written two other books, "The Case Against Barack Obama" (2008) and "Gangster Government" (2011).
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