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Rules of the Game: Democrats’ Super PAC Promotion Signals Shift

A recent video starring seven House Democrats promoting the super PAC that helped elect them speaks volumes about how few rules constrain such political action committees — and how wholeheartedly Congress has embraced them.

The video dismayed watchdog groups and not just because it featured personal testimonials from lawmakers thanking the super PAC, despite laws that theoretically require such unrestricted groups to keep candidates at arm’s length. More disturbing, say advocates of stricter rules, was that it trotted out newly elected freshmen — a group that historically tends to champion campaign finance fixes.

“I would have expected them to come to Capitol Hill rallying the cry of campaign finance reform and saying these largely undisclosed or unlimited sources of money have to be reined in,” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. “Instead, what we got are these same freshman Democrats saying that they want to participate in this unlimited money slush fund system; these super PACs are a good deal. I find that very troubling.”

House Majority PAC, which backs Democratic House candidates, released the video last week to demonstrate its success in responding to big-spending conservative super PACs that hammered Democrats in 2010, spokesman Andy Stone said. He said the ad is for “interested parties,” but it clearly targets donors with the message: “With your help, we formed House Majority PAC to fight back.”

Freshman Democrats are featured in the video praising House Majority PAC’s ads on specific issues, such as stem cell research and women’s rights. The PAC raised and spent more than $35 million, public records show, and ended 2012 with $155,000 in the bank. It has already targeted 10 Republicans in the runup to 2014.

Super PAC organizers are “completely confident” that the promotional video violates no election laws, Stone said, and campaign finance experts agree.

The Federal Election Commission allows federal officials to raise money for super PACs and even permits them to appear at such groups’ events, providing they don’t ask donors to give more than the $5,000 maximum that conventional PACs may donate to parties or candidates.

The video features a prominent disclaimer noting that none of the Democrats are “asking for funds or donations.” And no one has charged that it violates rules that bar coordination between candidates and super PACs. But that’s largely because those rules are written so narrowly that they apply only to a 90-day pre-election window and even allow candidates to share vendors with supposedly independent groups.

The FEC coordination rules contradict election laws, argue advocates of campaign finance changes who have successfully challenged them in court. The commission’s failure to write tougher coordination rules is just one of many FEC breakdowns, according to watchdogs engaged in an ongoing campaign to pressure President Barack Obama to appoint new commissioners to the agency.

The FEC just lost one of its six members with the departure of Democrat Cynthia Bauerly, and most of its remaining commissioners’ terms have expired.

“I don’t see how the president can avoid this issue any longer,” Holman said.

A growing number of super PACs are being set up with the express purpose of backing a single candidate; it’s only a matter of time before every member of Congress has his or her own super PAC, election law experts predict.

The House Majority PAC’s “ads on stem cell research made a big difference in my campaign,” Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Fla., declares in the recent video.

The super PAC spent $2.4 million helping defeat Murphy’s GOP opponent, former Rep. Allen B. West. The PAC “gets” the importance of “persuading and motivating the Latino vote,” chimes in Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., in the video.

“Here you have the candidates speaking in some detail about what was going on in their election, and why the intervention of this group was so critical, what issues it ran ads on were helpful,” said Lawrence Norton, co-chairman of the political law group at Venable and former general counsel at the FEC. “I haven’t seen anything like this before.”

Murphy, Ruiz and several other Democrats in the video did not return calls seeking comment. The other Democrats appearing in the spot are Reps. Ami Bera of California, Cheri Bustos of Illinois, Elizabeth Esty of Connecticut, Sean Patrick Maloney of New York and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

The National Republican Congressional Committee was quick to deride the video as an “unprecedented” example of Democrats pivoting from campaign trail attacks on big money to “cutting a commercial for an outside group that they are barred from coordinating with.”

“As long as Karl Rove and the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson continue their efforts to overwhelm Democrats, then Democrats have to fight back,” Stone said, referring to the leading pro-GOP organizers and donors.

But proponents of an election law overhaul, who had received assurances from incoming freshman Democrats that they would back such fixes as campaign finance disclosure and federal matching funds legislation, see the House Majority PAC video as a bad sign.

“I expected some heroes to emerge out of this battle,” Holman said. “And instead we are getting people who are beginning to accept the Citizens United world, and trying to figure out how to play in it.”

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