The Federal Election Commission has ruled unanimously that members of Congress, candidates and party leaders may not solicit unlimited funds for so-called super PACs. Officially known as "independent expenditure-only political committees," super PACs are independent organizations that collect funds — including from unions and corporations — for election-related advocacy. As the 2012 presidential campaign approaches, a negative ad about President Obama or some Republican candidate is as likely to be mounted by a super PAC as by a candidate's official campaign.
The 6-0 vote by the commission prevents party officials, officeholders and candidates from raising more than a small amount — usually $5,000 — for super PACs. That severs somewhat the link between supposedly independent PACs and public officials.
This is important because donors would be under more pressure to contribute to a super PAC if the solicitation came from a public official or candidate. At the other end of the transaction, a public official might be more likely to grant access — or more — to donors to a super PAC that the official has promoted. This wouldn't be the worst example of incestuous relations between donors and elected officials. But allowing public officials to raise funds for super PACs creates — or cements — relationships between officeholders or candidates and super PAC contributors.
Unfortunately, the commission did not extend its restrictions to appearances by public officials at events at which individuals and members of corporations and labor unions are solicited to make contributions to super PACs. The mere presence of an officeholder or candidate at a dinner or rally implies endorsement of the PAC and its fundraising activities. More important, it is corrupting for candidates to attend an event that results in contributions to their own campaigns.
The rationale for super PACs is that they channel contributions for independent advocacy unrelated to a campaign's official apparatus. That distinction means nothing when the candidate himself or herself is a pitchman for a PAC and the PAC then participates in that candidate's campaign.
Even with the FEC's ruling, super PACs have vast power to use corporate and other funds to support or oppose candidates for public office. The ruling means that at least they won't be able to recruit public officials and candidates to the ranks of their fundraisers at the same time that they are the beneficiaries of the PACs' spending.