We’ve changed the game from what really are small donors, either over the Internet or a couple hundred dollars, to a world where one person or a handful of people can bankroll a presidential candidate.
Trevor Potter, former member of the Federal Elections Commission, general counsel to John McCain for President, 2000, 2008, interviewed on NPR’s FRESH AIR program, with Terry Gross. Listen to the audio and read the full transcription, here. An excerpt is below:
GROSS: So you were an advisor to John McCain’s campaign in 2000 and 2008. You served on the Federal Elections Commission. What can candidates do now when raising money that they weren’t allowed to do before, that they weren’t allowed to do under McCain-Feingold?
POTTER: We’re really in a different world. Part of it involves candidates raising money, but most of it involves these new so-called superPACs. Throughout the – almost all of my career, until this year, what candidates could do was raise a small amount of money from each individual donor, it used to be $1,000, and then under McCain-Feingold it became $2,000 and was inflation-adjusted, so it’s 2,500. But that’s still a very small amount of money that an individual can give to a candidate.
Candidates would have fundraisers and accept contributions of maybe as little as 250 or $500 from donors. They would hope to have someone max out, as they call it, at the full $2,500 this year, and then if their spouse gave, you could double that to now 5,000.
And that’s the sort of money that candidates have been looking for. It has led, over the last couple cycles, to what we call bundlers, which means people who have a lot of wealthy friends they can ask money for, so that you go to a fundraiser, and your host gives you the 5,000, themselves and their spouse, but then they’ve asked their friends, their neighbors, their business associates, people in the same line of work to come to the fundraiser.
And in the McCain experience, where you may recall he was running really a low-funded campaign for a long period of time, they’d be thrilled if they could raise $25,000 at a fundraiser.
$50,000 [used to be] a very successful fundraiser.
Well, you jump from that sort of world to the world of the superPACs, where individuals can and do give $100,000, $500,000, some have given more than a million.
Famously, one of Newt Gingrich’s supporters has given, I believe, 10 million between himself and his spouse to these supposedly outside groups that then spend money to elect the candidates.
So we’ve changed the game from what really are small donors, either over the Internet or a couple hundred dollars, to a world where one person or a handful of people can bankroll a presidential candidate.
GROSS: So the people who you’re referring to, the husband and wife who gave to the Newt Gingrich campaign, that’s Sheldon Adelson and his wife, they apparently saved the Newt Gingrich campaign because Gingrich wouldn’t have had the money to carry on; a similar thing with Rick Santorum and one of his major funders, Foster Friess. Would they have been able to do that in previous years? I mean, would there be a way that they could have just given as individuals to the campaigns, as opposed to giving through a PAC?
POTTER: No, there really isn’t.
What they could have done in previous years is taken their own personal money and spent it, in the case of Gingrich in South Carolina, in the case of the Romney backers, they could have spent it in Iowa, but they would have had to do so by putting their own names on an ad.
So it would have said, you know, I’m Adelson and I approved this ad and it’s paid for by me. And no donor, no matter how wealthy, has ever really done that in the 30 years since Watergate, when these laws were put into effect.
GROSS: So the Supreme Court decision Citizens United opened the door for the creation of superPACs, and superPACs can get as much money as any individual corporation wants to give, but they have to reveal who they are. So…
POTTER: …What they said is corporations have the same right as individuals to make independent political expenditures. Then along came a lower court, the D.C. Circuit, which said if you have a right, a constitutional right to make independent expenditures on your own, you have a constitutional right to do so through a political committee.
And so superPACs… came from a lower court effectively sort of guessing that the Supreme Court [in Citizens United] meant to include the sort of groups we are now seeing, where they take unlimited contributions from a number of people and then engage in this unlimited spending.
POTTER: …The question of should you have unlimited, undisclosed spending in a democracy is the question on the table, because that’s what we’re heading to unless we change.
I don’t think that is healthy. It seems to me that you do have a real problem here of corruption.
It becomes effectively bribery if you can give an unlimited amount to a candidate for office, who then acts on your legislative agenda – either to vote for legislation you want or to sink legislation you don’t want.
If that is secret, so that that money is given and the donor or the spender knows it and the beneficiary knows it but public doesn’t, I think you will see more mistrust of the political system.
We run a risk here of citizens feeling that their vote doesn’t count because the members of Congress are going to do what the major donors tell them to do.
We run a risk that people will think their small contribution doesn’t count because candidates are going to get millions of dollars from people who can give that kind of money, not the average small donor.
That, to me, is not how a democratic system works.