Brett Smiley – the founder and president here at CFO Compliance – hopped on a flight to North Carolina last week in order to serve as a delegate at the Democratic National Convention. This meant I had nobody in the office to badger with my pesky questions about campaign finances. Left to my own devices, I spent a lot of time reading news articles about Super PACs, while, incidentally, reruns of the television show, Friday Night Lights, were on in the background.
Actively consuming one form of media and passively consuming another at the same time forced my mind to merge them together in one collective blob of information. I started seeing real-life politics in a fictional program about sports. Let me explain.
Buddy Garrity is the fictional president of the fictional Dillon High School’s booster club. In the small town of Dillon – where the locals place nothing in the world above their love for high school football – Buddy has dedicated his adult life to convincing upper class, small-town Texans to write him large checks so that the football program can afford to buy things like JumboTrons and fancy uniforms.
Buddy and his booster pals are separate from the high school itself. They aren’t coaches, employees, or teachers. They are simply passionate supporters who raise funds and act in what they feel is the organization’s best interest.
Do you see where this is going?
Buddy Garrity, in his small sphere, is a Super PAC.
Super PACs are “non-profit” organizations that raise money to support certain political candidates. In this election year – the first since the Citizens United decision to allow unlimited, anonymous donations into independent political action committees – wealthy men and women are dedicating their time and talents to running these organizations. They are convincing other wealthy men and women to write large checks so that the group can afford things like prime-time political advertising.
These organizations are separate from the official campaigns they support. They have their own bank accounts, and their messages are uninfluenced by the particular candidate’s communication team. They are simply passionate supporters who raise funds and act in what they feel is the organization’s best interest. Because of this separation – because they are their own entities – the Supreme Court ruled that Super PACs do not need to adhere to FEC campaign contribution regulations.
However, that separation tends to blur in both cases. Buddy Garrity would tip-toe around the borderline by showing up to closed practices and making speeches at organized team events. Over the last few weeks, Super PACs have followed in his footsteps by making appearances at the conventions in Tampa and Charlotte.
Despite rules that prohibit official campaigns from planning and coordinating with their independent support groups, the conventions featured a lot of intermingling between elected officials and their Super PAC supporters.
According to this New York Times article, representatives from Restore Our Future, Americans for Prosperity and American Crossroads had “all but merged into a unified conservative machine.” They hosted parties that featured elected officials as guest speakers, had dinner with Senators, and stayed in the same hotel as the Romney campaign.
This probably shouldn’t matter. Wealthy people have always had more access to glamorous privileges than the average Joes. Miley Cyrus met the Queen of England; why should we surprised that these billionaires – who, it must be noted, are brilliant and successful human beings – are rubbing shoulders with politicians at the National Convention?
But it clearly does matter. It seems to be a cause of concern for many American people, and it’s the lack of regulation that seems to be disconcerting. FEC regulations and donor contribution limits exist in order to, yes, prevent an unfair fundraising advantage for either candidate, but they also exist to ensure that every individual vote – the ones from the broke 21 year-old college student all the way to the billionaire casino magnate – are counted equally. Elected officials are voted into office and represent the people with decision-making power. Everyone else is a tally mark on Election Day.
Super PACs weren’t breaking any rules in Charlotte or Tampa; they were simply showing how easily groups can get around them. The billionaire leaders of political action groups certainly aren’t bad people. Neither are the real-life, small-town equivalents of Buddy Garrity. But they’re powerful. And if a six or nine-figure check is enough to buy a meeting with a presidential candidate at a convention, average voters may fear that the people sign those checks will be given the power to voice their opinions at closed-door meetings about public policy issues that affect the entire nation.
In Dillon, Buddy was able to leverage his power to convince the head coach of a high school football team who to start at quarterback.
In an election year in the United States of America, Super PACs have already shown they have the money. Without regulation, voters seem to fear the leverage that money could create.