Money has always been the dark force of politics, but it’s reaching a tipping point in the 2016 presidential election. Whoever wins will be more beholden than any recent predecessor to megadonors who write huge checks. Campaigns are skating up to, or over, ethical and legal lines to maximize the dollars. There’s little worry about prosecution, though. The agency set up to enforce campaign laws after the Watergate scandals in 1974 — the Federal Election Commission — is mired in partisan stalemate on major issues, meaning there’s effectively no cop on the beat. That leaves no one (except the news media) to police the flood of big money set loose by court decisions in 2010 that made it legal for corporations, labor unions and rich people to give unlimited amounts to “super PACs,” which can support candidates as long as they remain independent from them.
In practice, the independence is fiction. Super PACs are typically run by a candidate’s close aides, but it’s hard to prove illegal coordination.
Advisers to Republican Jeb Bush have already told reporters that his presidential campaign — which technically doesn’t exist yet because Bush hasn’t officially declared — will be offloading big expenses such as television ads, direct mail and get-out-the-vote efforts to its super PAC.
Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign will also rely on an affiliated super PAC for TV and Internet advertising. The idea that campaigns would outsource crucial activities to groups they could not at least clandestinely steer is hard to swallow.