January 19, 2012; Source: Roll Call | Ever since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the infusion of special interest money into political campaigns through “independent” tax-exempt entities such as 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations and 501(c)(6) trade associations has skyrocketed.
In what might be the most competitive and important senate race in the country, Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and his Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Warren have exchanged very interesting correspondence calling for one another to clamp down on third-party spending in support of each candidate.
Brown sent a signed pledge to Warren that would, if she approves, require each candidate’s campaign to pay a “steep financial penalty if third party ads are run” supporting their candidacy. Brown suggested that the candidate would have to pay a fine of 50 percent of the cost of a third party organization’s advertising. If Brown were hit with the penalty, he would make the payment to a charity of Warren’s choice, and vice versa if Warren were to incur a penalty because of independent spending on her behalf.
Warren sent a letter back expressing agreement with Brown and adding some additional clauses to the deal. Representatives of the two campaigns will meet later this week to negotiate details.
What is all the fuss about? Just look at the op-ed by Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer in Politico, which outlines in short order exactly what is wrong with the hundreds of millions of dollars flowing secretly into third-party groups that allegedly do not coordinate with the candidates. Like Wertheimer, we believe that the notion of independent third-party organizations that spend millions on behalf of candidates without some dimension of the candidates’ knowledge or involvement is just too silly to believe. Plus, the whole thing takes candidates off message and away from the core issues of the campaign.
The special interest funding going to these organizations is also, in many cases, pernicious and corrupting. All you need to see as evidence is the independent spending by organizations supporting various Republican presidential candidates. One would almost feel sorry for the candidates, who must fend off half-truths and untruths backed by million-dollar donors, some of whom keep their identities secret due to the confidentiality protections of (c)(4)s and (c)(6)s.
If it gets firmed up, the proposed Massachusetts agreement will not undo the millions that have already been spent by groups like Crossroads GPS. But the campaign still has a ways to go before the election, and the proposal suggests that candidates are getting fed up with the over-exuberance of some of their own supporters.
Our questions: Which groups will end up being Brown and Warren’s favorite charities to receive the penalties? And will heady players like Karl Rove (who is behind Crossroads GPS) decide to make an example of these two collaborative opponents by spending away just to deter others from attempting to rein in this kind of special interest campaign funding?—Rick Cohen