Earl Ofari Hutchinson's take on the politics of the day
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In an exclusive interview on The Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour with host Earl Ofari Hutchinson on KTYM 1460 AM Los Angeles on September 30, Paul Seamus Ryan, Federal Election Commission Program Director
EOH: Super PACs [Political Action Committees] - What are they?
PSR: What the Supreme Court did in Citizen’s United was to free up corporations, labor unions and other organizations to make unlimited expenditures in support of candidates, but they did not strike down the 100 year old ban on corporate contributions directly to candidates. That distinction matters in what we will increasingly see in 2012. The Super PACs were created by the U.S. Supreme Court and the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court said in a statement that I wholeheartedly disagree with, “Independent expenditures cannot corrupt candidates by nature of the fact that the expenditure itself isn’t coordinated with candidates.” That’s a faulty assumption. Two months later Speech Now won its test case challenging limits on contributions to groups that only wanted to make independent expenditures, and did not intend to contribute directly to candidates. The Court said that “since the Supreme Court said independent expenditures cannot corrupt, we now declare that money given to groups for independent expenditures likewise cannot corrupt, and therefore not be limited.” As a result, corporations can spend out of their own coffers on ads that say elect Mitt Romney, defeat Barack Obama, or whatever and groups that want to run those ads can take unlimited amounts of money from anyone. They are becoming shadow candidate committees where they have declared themselves wholly dedicated to electing specific individuals, both Republican and Democrat.
EOH: What does this mean for small donor contributors having input to candidates and their campaigns?
PSR: I am confident the voice of the average voter is going to be dramatically decreased in the 2012 election. The 2008 Presidential election marked a historic point in election campaigns. We had more small donors involved than ever before. This was before the birth of Super PACs. Candidates were reaching out to small donors and engaging them, using the internet and social networking tools to raise small donor contributions. I think we will still see those approaches by the candidates themselves, but the Super PACs that have been set up by close associates of the candidates will be raising and spending huge checks from corporate coffers and drown out the voices of the average voters.
EOH: Is there any legislation that can be done to check where it’s coming from and where it’s going?
PSR: I don’t think it is a lost cause. I’m not giving up and there are a lot of dedicated political reformers who are most certainly not going to give up. It has made the voters ability to get information about who may be trying to buy government more difficult. 5 of the 9 justices said “don’t worry, we’re going to free up corporate coffers to influence election, but we still have disclosure.” The reality is that there is not much disclosure because of the rise of another type of group, the 501(c)(4) tax exempt organizations which are being used to launder money to Super PACs. Super PACs have to tell where they get the money and how they spend it, but the 501(c)(4) group does not have to make disclosure. Anyone who writes a million dollar check will let the candidate know, but the public will be in the dark.
EOH: Will corporations have more say in legislature?
PSR: I think corporations and the wealthy will have a greater voice and greater influence in policy making than they’ve ever had before, and that is saying something, because corporations have never lacked influence in federal government. One of the most remarkable passages in the Supreme Court decision says “The appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.” I certainly disagree with that. The appearance of influence that comes from the benefit of big contributors certainly undermines my faith in our democracy.
EOH: Does the McCain-Feingold Act have any relevance anymore?
PSR: The McCain-Feingold Law had two major pillars. One was restricting corporate/union political expenditures. That was obliterated by the Citizen’s United decision. The second entailed restrictions on federal office holders soliciting unlimited money. That law is still on the books. One of the things that has not been reported sufficiently by journalists is that solicitation limitations are pretty modest. They allow a candidate to show up and speak at a fund raiser for a Super PAC as long as they don’t ask for money, but the person who introduces the candidate can ask for a million dollar corporate check. There is nothing to prevent more general conversations between candidates and outside groups; that is why million dollar contributions to Super PACs can and will, in my view, corrupt candidates for the presidency in 2012.
EOH: Will the greatest influence be on the Presidential Campaign, Congress or both?
PSR: I think there will be big money in both. I think the Super PACs are going to target specific races they think will be close calls in the House and Senate. They are going to pinpoint those races, dump a considerable amount of money into them, but the vast majority, I believe, will be to influence the Presidential race. We’re going to see huge corporate and wealthy special interest money in the system.
EOH: Beyond 2012, do you see a proliferation of Super PACs in State and Local races?
PSR: I definitely anticipate a trickle-down effect of Super PACs in state and local races. They are going to grow, and that makes it critically important that voters, activists and legislators reform and strengthen our disclosure laws. Without improved disclosure we will be in the dark about special interest money that will infiltrate and corrupt every level of politics in the United States.