There’s something about the Mayday Political Action Committee that recalls the Cold War. The Soviet Union would build a big weapon and the United States would build one to counter it, and vice versa.
The Mayday PAC, which went into business on May 1 (the date being one reason for the name, the other part being the radio distress code) is a super PAC started by campaign finance reformers as a weapon against other super PACs.
“Embrace the irony,” wrote Lawrence Lessig of the Harvard Law School, who founded the Mayday PAC with Mark McKinnon, a Republican campaign strategist.
This is “Star Wars” for super PACs, missiles designed to shoot down enemy missiles. The idea is to raise money in small donations and have them matched by big donors. The goal is to raise $12 million and spend it to elect five congressional candidates who will vote for campaign-finance reform.
If it works, the Mayday PAC will be scaled up for 2016 and beyond to elect a Congress that will get the corruptive influence of big money out of American politics.
Super PACs were enabled in the wake of the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Since 1976, people have been able to spend as much as they want on political campaigns, as long as those expenditures were made independently of candidate and party committees. Only a few chose to do so until Citizens United said that corporations and unions could spend as much as they wanted on independent expenditures, too.
Three months after Citizens United, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in the case of SpeechNow v. FEC. The court affirmed that what was good for corporations and unions was true also for individual citizens: There’s no limit on how much you spend as long as you don’t coordinate with candidate or party committees. Wink-wink, nudge-nudge.
Thus was born the super PAC. By 2012 there were 1,310 of them, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. They raised $828.2 million and spent $609.4 million on the 2012 elections. Other outside spending, including anonymous “dark money” spending by phony “social welfare” organizations, pushed the independent spending total to more than $1.2 billion. More than two-thirds was spent supporting conservative candidates and causes.
As long as the Supreme Court is going to to define money as a form of speech that cannot be suppressed, any reform movement faces long odds. Retired Justice John Paul Stevens had the better definition of money — it’s property, not speech.
Justice Stevens and Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., are among those who think the goal must be a constitutional amendment giving Congress and state governments the right to limit campaign spending. That’s a process that could take decades, particularly when big-money donors like things the way they are.
This despite the fact that poll after poll has shown that huge majorities of voters, Democrats, Republicans and independents alike, think big money has too much influence in politics and government.
Even so, it’s tempting to say “Good luck with that” to the Mayday PAC and write it off as another exercise in windmill-tilting. After all, the “Star Wars” program worked only in Ronald Reagan’s imagination. And then there’s this: Estimates are that because of the gerrymandered way that congressional districts are drawn, no more than 30 of the 435 can really be said to be in play.
The Mayday PAC would have to prevail in all 30; the odds against that are long, particularly as rival super PACs representing the status quo would throw millions at them, too.
However, Mr. Lessig and Mr. McKinnon have enlisted big-money donors of their own who are willing to match, dollar-for-dollar, smaller contributions to their super PAC.
The first challenge, begun May 1, was to raise $1 million in contributions, in amounts of $10,000 or less, by the end of May. It took only two weeks. The next goal is $5 million by the Fourth of July. The smaller donations would be matched, at each $1 million increment, by big donors, mostly from the tech sector.
The dark money-funded Daily Caller calls the donors “filthy-rich leftists,” though the group includes Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and a past supporter of Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas. Also on the list, Reid Hoffman, CEO of LinkedIn, and venture capitalists Brad Burnham, Fred Wilson and Vin Ryan.
Here’s a truly frightening fact: In 2012, 60 percent of all the super PAC money was contributed by just 132 people. America is at risk of turning into an oligarchy — a government where effective political speech, like private jets, is the province of a relative handful of powerful people.
The Mayday PAC may not be the answer, but it is surely asking the right question: Will we have government by the few or government by the many?