Ten billion bucks for a presidential race? Really?

     (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-173853539/stock-photo-arm-holding-megaphone-speaking-money-money-talks.html'>Money talks</a> image courtesy of Shutterstock.com )

    (Money talks image courtesy of Shutterstock.com )

    We all know that the ’16 campaign will cost way more money than ever before – $10 billion is the latest head-spinning estimate – and that the reform laws aimed at curbing fat-cat clout have virtually collapsed. But still, it was shocking the other day when the nation’s top watchdog said that she’s powerless to police the new Wild West.

    It’s rare to hear a federal official make such an admission – while still in office, anyway – but Federal Elections Commission leader Ann Ravel did so, telling The New York Times: “The likelihood of the (campaign finance) laws being enforced is slim. I never want to give up, but I’m not under any illusions. People think the FEC is dysfunctional. It’s worse than dysfunctional.”

    The FEC is worse than dysfunctional because its six members are ideologically gridlocked. The agency’s three Democratic-appointed commissioners want to enforce the reform laws, but its three Republican-appointed commissioners oppose enforcement – because they basically subscribe to the belief that “money is speech,” and that any curbs on money are tantamont to curbing speech. That’s also the prevailing view on the U.S. Supreme Court, as best evidenced by Citizens United, which sanctions unlimited fat-cat and special interest spending in presidential campaigns.

    The result of all this – “money is speech” trumping the post-Watergate money curbs; an FEC rendered toothless from within – the candidates are selling themselves to the highest bidders in unprecedentedly creative ways, ratcheting up the total tab to record heights. Exhibit A is the super PAC, a gift to the nation from Citizens United. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Republican appointees, deep-pocket donors can buy as much speech as they want by giving money to the “independent” groups that support their favorite candidate.

    But in practice, as we’re seeing already, these super PACs are not independent at all. They’re not supposed to “coordinate” with the official campaigns, but that’s just a fig leaf. Truth is, they’re heavily staffed by the candidates’ insiders – who know in advance what the candidates want. For instance, Jeb Bush’s allied super PAC, Right to Rise, will be run by one of Jeb’s top insiders, longtime GOP strategist Mike Murphy. And a super PAC that supports Rand Paul, known as America’s Liberty, will be run by a longtime Rand Paul strategist, Jesse Benton.

    By the way, if you were wondering why Jeb hasn’t yet formally announced his candidacy, the reason is simple: As long as he’s not a candidate (in the formal sense), he can coordinate as much as he wants with Murphy and the others who are ramping up Right to Rise. And until he becomes an official candidate, he can continue in his present role as chief fundraiser for Right to Rise. By the end of June, by all estimates, he will have personally coaxed $100 million from his affluent donors.

    So the super PACs will have mucho bucks to create ads and conduct voter research – free of all the fund-raising restrictions ($5400 per donor) that still apply to the official candidate campaigns. And to ensure that rich donors pony up as much as possible for the super PACs, and to keep pace with rival super PACs, even some of the official candidates are headlining super PAC fundraisers.

    Technically, of course, they’re not supposed to be “coordinating” with the super PACs. But under current FEC rules – which barely qualify as rules – it’s OK for an official candidate to show up at super PAC fundraisers…as long as they don’t personally ask for huge donations.

    This is how Hillary Clinton has decided to play the game. She’s reportedly alarmed at all the fat checks Jeb has been soliciting for Right to Rise, so now she wants to do whatever she can to boost her “independent” super PAC, Priorities USA Action. One Clinton official says that Hillary has no other choice: “There is too much at stake for our future for Democrats to unilaterally disarm.” (No unilateral disarmament…I’ve been hearing that argument from both sides, in defense of this ever-spiraling arms race, for more than two decades.)

    If there’s any upside to this competition – a super PAC allied with Marco Rubio claims to have raised $20 million in just two weeks – it’s the fact that, by law, the identities of donors have to be disclosed. But there’s a whole separate category of non-profits – organized as “social welfare” groups and “public education” groups – that don’t have to disclose their donors. (Here’s a handy chart to help you figure out what kinds of groups litter the campaign landscape.)

    Under our tax laws, these nonprofits – 501C3s and 501C4s – are allowed to conceal their donors, because they’re supposedly devoting most of their resources to “social welfare” and “public education.” But in reality, many of these groups, like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, are totally political. The result is that unprecedented amounts of secret money are being pumped via these groups into the ’16 bloodstream, and we’ll likely never know who’s trying to buy post-election influence. Indeed, the FEC tried to investigate those groups early last year, hoping to expose the “social welfare” fig leaf and force the disclosure of donors, but naturally its effort died in gridlock.

    All told, it’s enough to make you wonder whether $10 billion could be spent on something more needworthy than a presidential campaign. Feel free to think up rational alternatives.

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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