We don't know whether President Obama watches "The Colbert Report," but if so, he must have felt a sense of deja vu when he endorsed a supposedly independent "super PAC" that will air advertising on his behalf. You may remember the show: To comply with campaign finance law, Stephen Colbert, a mock candidate for president, transferred control of his super PAC to pal and business partner Jon Stewart. Hilarity ensued because supposedly there would be no coordination between Colbert and his buddy.
Now Obama has done almost the same thing, despite his longtime opposition to massive special-interest spending in political campaigns. His decision to embrace Priorities USA Action, a political action committee founded by two former aides, is as much an indictment of campaign finance regulation as of an incumbent president who decided to take full advantage of provisions that Republicans have successfully exploited.
In theory, super PACS are independent of campaigns, consistent with Supreme Court decisions drawing a distinction between contributions made directly to campaigns, which can be limited because of their potential for "quid pro quo corruption," and independent expenditures, which supposedly pose less of a threat of such corruption. Campaigns are forbidden to coordinate strategy with independent groups, but it's understandable that some voters are skeptical when they see that the super PACs supporting Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney — and now Obama — have been organized by former aides. You don't have to believe in telepathy to recognize that they will be attuned to the campaigns' strategies.
Even worse, the Federal Election Commission has made it possible for campaigns and candidates to raise money — up to $5,000 per donor — for super PACS and even attend PAC functions. Obama is expected to dispatch Cabinet members as well as campaign officials to PAC gatherings. His top aides have made it clear that they hope wealthy individuals will contribute large sums beyond what they are allowed to contribute directly to the campaign. This may not qualify under the law as coordination, but it gives the lie to the assertion that the campaigns and the super PACs are entities unto themselves.
The Supreme Court was naive in believing that most independent expenditures would be hermetically sealed off from campaigns. It was also too sanguine in concluding that independent expenditures pose less of a potential for corruption or the appearance of corruption than direct contributions to campaigns. Ironically, disclosure of the names of super PAC contributors — a concession to transparency that we support — puts a candidate on notice about who is serving his interests whether there is coordination or not, and can therefore help put the candidate in the contributors' debt.
What can be done about all this? Some opponents of the Citizens United decision, which allowed unions and corporations to spend unlimited funds on election-related advocacy, are pushing for a constitutional amendment that would in effect overturn it. That's not something that's likely to happen soon. In the near term, the FEC or Congress should tighten the definition of "coordination," forbidding any contact between campaigns and PACs. It also would be refreshing (though we don't actually expect it to happen) if candidates who decried the influence of special-interest money withheld their blessing from groups that purport to be independent.