Our political system is all messed up. I won’t even couch that with an “allegedly” or a “reportedly” — it is just a mess, and our federal election laws are a joke.
You want to know exactly where a candidate has gotten money to stage their expensive campaign? I sure do. I want to know what organizations or powerful people a candidate might feel beholden to once they take office. But the way the campaign finance laws are written, that vital information is easily kept secret.
Realize as you read this that the election campaign laws were written and passed by members of Congress — the very people who would most frequently be held accountable to them. No wonder it’s such a muddle.
I admit upfront that I am not an expert. But after attending every day of the recent John Edwards political corruption trial, I got an eye-opening crash course in how ridiculous, complicated and full of loopholes our elections laws are. Trying to explain it is like trying to summarize the Internal Revenue Service code.
(In case you missed it, Edwards, a former Democratic presidential candidate, was found not guilty of one count of accepting an illegal campaign contribution, and a mistrial was declared on five related counts.)
I always thought the Federal Election Commission kept track of all the money that flowed to and from a politician running for office. I was wrong. Under the law, the FEC can only police some of the contributions — specifically, those that go directly into the politician’s official campaign office.
Under law, no person can give a candidate’s campaign more than $5,000 a year, and the FEC makes public a list of all these donations. But the ugly truth is that the vast majority of money that goes to help a politician never passes through their campaign office. And it is all legal.
Is it ethical? That’s for you to decide.
Here’s how it works: Let’s take the hypothetical case of a U.S. senator we’ll call Sam Smith. He decides he wants to run for president on a platform that America should be a more hopeful country, where everyone gets a college education and a job.
Even before Smith officially declares his candidacy, he and his pals set up nonprofit organizations with fancy names like “The Center for Hope and Justice,” “The College for Everyone Fund” or the “We’re All in It Together Foundation.” They start fund raising, and the money rolls in to these so-called “527 organizations” (named for a section in the tax code) or “Political Action Committees” (aka PACs).
Using these entities, millions of dollars is funneled in from people, unions and corporations. Much of the time, no public reporting is required, so voters can’t tell where the big money behind their candidate came from. It feels like legalized bribery to me.
Once these political pirates have their 527 or PAC money, they can buy unlimited advertising to promote their favorite candidate. They can declare on television or radio, in newspapers or on billboards, “Sam Smith supports free college tuition for everyone, just like we do!” Or they can buy a 30-second TV commercial and fill it with nothing but pictures of Smith, his handsome family, cute puppy dogs and a final graphic that reads, “What a Great American!”
The only restriction on the 527s or PACs is they cannot use the magic phrase, “Vote for Sam Smith.”
What a scam — and realize, these groups will also use their millions of dollars to buy vicious attack ads against Smith’s opponent.
Now, the candidate will slyly tell you they have nothing to do with those attacks and no control over what others do. The pol might scrape their toe in the dirt, shrug and look a tad embarrassed as he or she explains that they are humbled and grateful that an outside group is buying advertising that just happens to promote the same issues that are near and dear to their heart.
Don’t be fooled. Now you know how it works. These 527 and PAC groups are usually birthed by campaign strategists as a way to get around FEC rules. And it’s done with a wink and a nod from all involved.
But, wait. Maybe Smith is a great candidate and he really does deserve our vote. Isn’t there a better, more transparent way for him to get the money he needs to run for office while preserving the voters’ right to know where the heck the money is really coming from?
You bet there is. First, take the thousands of pages of FEC regulations and make a big bonfire out of them! Then, write a one-page set of simple guidelines that every candidate in every political contest in America must adhere to. That page will say, in effect, that whatever money comes in to a person running for office must be reported to the public every calendar quarter. Every dollar that goes out must also be accounted for and appear on an easy-to-access report posted on the Internet.
Every supporter’s gift — from free office space and airplane rides to silent auction items or a celebrity chef hired to cook at a fundraiser — everything must be posted for voters’ inspection.
That’s the only true path to transparency. So, do I hear any politicians embracing this idea?