Sen. John McCain slammed the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision as “incredibly naïve” on Tuesday, and predicted there would be “huge scandals” in its wake.
The Arizona Republican was co-author with then-colleague Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., of the last major attempt by government to reform campaign finance laws in 2002. He was participating in a panel discussion on the decision at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
The law prohibited corporations and unions from bankrolling issue ads that mention a candidate within the final weeks before an election.
But under the contentious Citizens United ruling, corporations and unions were freed not only to fund issue ads that mention a candidate but to also make so-called “independent expenditures” that urge people to vote for or vote against candidates.
Many worry this change will increase the potential for corruption and unseemly alliances between lawmakers and special interests.
The ruling has given rise to independent expenditure groups called "super PACs," which can accept unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations, unions and trade groups. They may not donate money to candidates’ campaigns nor coordinate with candidates about their expenditures.
Super PACs have collectively raised more than $230 million since their creation in 2010, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
In the 2012 GOP presidential race, each candidate has benefited from super PACs — particularly former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — which have frequently been run by their former top aides and funded by an elite network of donors.
At the Thomson Reuters-sponsored event, McCain called this overlap between campaigns and super PACs “outrageous” and said the independence of super PACs is “the worst joke in Washington.”
Panelist David Keating, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, which advocates for First Amendment political rights, countered that there’s “no evidence there’s illegal coordination going on.”
Still, both McCain and former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) bemoaned the possibility of foreign money influencing U.S. elections.
McCain specifically cited billionaire Sheldon Adelson – the major bankroller of the most prominent super PAC aiding Newt Gingrich — as an example of foreign money already finding a way into the system, albeit in a roundabout way.
Adelson owns casinos in Macau, a former Portuguese colony off the coast of China.
Harman told iWatch News that if a donor owns foreign businesses, it makes sense political donations made by the donor may be tied to those offshore assets.
“I don’t have any proof of this, but I think that we will learn after this election that there was a lot of foreign money in the system,” she said.
Panelist Doug Schoen, a Democratic political consultant, agreed, saying this will be a “super PAC election,” where between 50 and 100 ultra-wealthy individuals will drive the agenda.
One panelist proposed eliminating super PACs entirely: Buddy Roemer.
The former GOP governor of Louisiana is making a long-shot presidential bid through a group called Americans Elect — a recently launched outfit that is attempting to gain ballot access in all 50 states.
His campaign finance reform plan calls for fully disclosing all campaign contributions (no matter how small), reporting all contributions to the FEC within 48 hours of their receipt, forbidding lobbyists from both lobbying specific politicians and fundraising for them, setting PAC contribution limits at the same level as individual limits and establishing criminal penalties for campaign finance violations.
Meanwhile, former FEC Chairman Michael Toner stressed that negative ads — which have dominated super PAC spending — are not a new phenomenon and argued that running for office makes you “fair game for vigorous, free-wheeling debate.”
He suggested that if campaign contribution limits to candidates were increased or lifted entirely, then members of Congress would spend less time fundraising and more time focused on legislating and serving their constituents.
Roemer was not impressed.
“Baloney,” he said, arguing that that would not be enough to change the “broken” system. “Sometime, somewhere, we’re going to stand up and say we want to be free of the big checks.”