Political campaigns – and specifically they way they are financed – in many ways are like the weather. We sigh, and lament. "If only we could control the climate," we tell ourselves during times of drought or flood.
We as a collective body of voting citizens seem to have adopted the same attitude about campaign finance. Oh, if only we could control it.
A review of somewhat recent history reveals that the people we count on to pass laws to police this sort of thing – members of Congress – had made strides in trying to reform the process of campaign fundraising.
In 1907, Congress banned corporate contributions to federal candidates in the wake of the robber baron-era scandals. In 1947, the ban was formally applied to corporate expenditures and extended to cover labor unions.
In 1974, Congress enacted limits on individual contributions to federal candidates and political committees in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
But then things started to unravel.
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court in the Citizens United case declared the corporate expenditure ban unconstitutional, holding that independent expenditures could not be constitutionally limited in federal elections.
The court also implied that corporations could give unlimited amounts to other groups to spend, as long as the expenditures were made independently from the supported candidate. Subsequently, a U.S. Court of Appeals decision held that the limits on individual contributions to groups that made independent expenditures were unconstitutional.
Thus was born the super PAC.
"And thus was born the national campaign finance scandals that are unfolding daily in the 2012 elections," states Fred Wertheimer in a recent commentary on CNN. Wertheimer is president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that supports campaign finance reform.
Super PACs are federally registered political action committees that raise unlimited contributions from the super rich, corporations, labor unions and other entities and spend these funds to make "independent" expenditures in federal elections.
"They are an unmitigated disaster for the American people," Wertheimer said.
It's difficult to argue with Wertheimer's observation. Especially after Wednesday morning's USA TODAY reported that five wealthy people, led by Dallas industrialist Harold Simmons and Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, have donated nearly $1 of every $4 flowing to the super PACs raising unlimited money in this year's presidential race.
In the 2012 presidential election, an even more insidious version of the super PAC was born – the candidate-specific super PAC. Every significant presidential campaign has had a super PAC – created and run by close associates of the candidate – that raises unlimited contributions to spend only to support that presidential candidate.
Last week, President Barack Obama reversed course and agreed to send Cabinet members, White House staff and campaign officials to speak at and participate in fundraising events for Priorities USA Action, the allegedly "independent" super PAC supporting Obama's re-election. Days later, Mitt Romney's campaign announced that senior Romney campaign aides would do the same and appear and speak at fundraising events for Restore Our Future, Romney's allegedly "independent" super PAC.
Perhaps the bad weather analogy used at the beginning of this column doesn't do justice to Super PACS. They are worse than a drought, or a flood. They are a plague – a swarm of locusts and the Black Death – all rolled into one.
Super PACs corrupt our political system in two ways.
They allow a relatively few super-rich individuals and other wealthy interests to have undue influence over the results of our elections.
Super PACs also allow the super rich and wealthy interests to buy influence over government decisions, in the event the candidate wins.
Wertheimer states that the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case that unleashed this is built entirely on a fiction: that "independent" expenditures by corporations cannot have a corrupting influence on federal officeholders.
This is fantasy, not reality, he claims. Right now, we find it very difficult to argue with Wertheimer's assertions.
Important steps can and must be taken to deal with candidate-specific super PACs within the boundaries of the destructive Citizens United decision, he said, noting that Democracy 21 is preparing legislation to shut down super PACs that are closely tied to the candidate they are supporting.
"Five Supreme Court justices have done enormous damage to our country with one of the worst decisions in the history of the court," Wertheimer said. "This will not be allowed to stand. Citizens will rise up to demand and achieve fundamental reforms, as we have before when threatened with the systemic corruption of our government and officeholders."
We wish Wertheimer the best of luck. He and others face a most daunting task as they simultaneously take on the super rich and a decision wrought by the high court.
It may be an effort that's almost as difficult as controlling the weather.