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 naïve.”
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.