TILTON, N.H. -- The rapid rise and far-reaching impact of super PACs -- the well-financed non-party groups that helped carry former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to victory in the Iowa caucuses -- have persuaded some prominent Republicans that restrictions of some sort on the groups' activities may be in order.
In an interview with The Huffington Post on Wednesday evening, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge said he saw no legal way in which to limit the amount of money that these groups could spend or raise. But he said that both he and the candidate he supports, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, believed firmly that the names of the donors funding those groups should be subject to near instantaneous disclosure.
"I've talked to Jon about this and he and I are like-minded," said Ridge. "He has a modest super PAC [supporting him]. I have felt for the longest time, it is very unlikely that the Supreme Court of the United States would put financial limits on free speech. But I think it is within the power of the president and the Congress to say: 'Guess what? Any contribution in excess of $500 to $1,000 to you personally or the super PAC, it is on the Internet within 24 hours, so people can know.' Not quarterly. Transparency now, it is the best antiseptic."
Told that his proposed solution echoes the general theory behind the campaign finance disclosure legislation that Democrats failed to move through the Senate in 2010, Ridge argued that a bit of presidential leadership could do the trick. As of now, there are no plans to reintroduce the bill, known as the DISCLOSE Act.
Under current law, super PACs can chose to file the names of their donors either quarterly or monthly. If they elect to do so quarterly, then they only have to file twice during an off-year of an election cycle such as 2011. Several groups chose to begin filing on a monthly basis toward the end of this year so as to avoid disclosing their donors before the Iowa caucus.
"In a 21st century world, if anybody wants to give a candidate one million or two million dollars, give it. But I want every journalist, every opponent, every taxpayer, every citizen to know that that's who gave it," said Ridge. "They may draw no conclusions. They may draw the wrong conclusion. They may draw the right conclusion."
"I asked Jon if he had thought about it," Ridge added. "He said, 'I'm there.'"
While Ridge's problems with the influence of super PACs comes from a more philosophical perspective, those who have been hammered by negative ads paid for by the groups are speaking out as well. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose hopes in Iowa succumbed to millions of dollars in ads in super PAC ads, has not stopped complaining about the treatment he received in the state since.
Even Romney, the candidate whose well-moneyed allies are responsible for the super PAC attacks against Gingrich, has said that he would like to see those groups eliminated. The former Massachusetts Gov. received an endorsement from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) this week, who lamented on Thursday that his signature campaign finance law, the McCain-Feingold Act, was gutted by the Supreme Court in Citizens United, the decision that paved the way for super PACs to emerge.
"What is happening now is what I predicted," McCain told CBS. "The United States Supreme Court -- in what I think is one of the worst decisions in history -- struck down the restrictions in the so-called McCain-Feingold Law, and a lot of people don't agree with that, but I predicted when the United States Supreme Court, with their absolute ignorance of what happens in politics, struck down that law, that there would be a flood of money into campaigns, not transparent, unaccounted for, and this is exactly what is happening."
No one, it appears, seems willing to defend the way in which the groups currently operate. And yet, if political pressure is mounting for more transparency in campaigns, it hasn't yet managed to move the candidates. Gingrich still says he supports the Citizens United ruling, despite all the direct political hardships it may have caused his career.
"I would actually rather support eliminating all of the various rules that stop people, middle class people, from raising money and instead allow people to donate unlimited after-tax money as long as they report it every single night on the Internet," Gingrich said. "Then the candidates would have the money, the candidates would run the ads."
And while McCain may have offered a round of I-told-you-so's during a round of media appearances Thursday morning, he spent the afternoon pitching voters on a candidate who has shunned transparency at all corners. Romney has declined to list the names of his campaign bundlers and has said that he won't release his tax returns, even if he were to win the Republican nomination. During the 2008 presidential campaign, McCain did both.
"McCain laments 'a flood of money into campaigns. Not transparent; unaccounted for,' then gives a big hint about how he would answer critics of Romney's non-disclosure: 'And those are the rules, and everyone is playing by those rules,'" emailed Larry Noble, a nationally recognized expert on campaign finance, ethics and lobbying at the firm Skadden, Arps. "While the rules do not require the presidential campaigns to disclose most bundlers or their tax returns, McCain can say Romney is playing by the rules, but can't say he is doing what McCain thinks he should be doing."
"Also, Romney seems to have fully embraced the idea that corporations are people, so that is another issue on which he and McCain disagree," Noble added. "I suspect money in politics and campaign finance issues are not high on the list of topics they talk about when together."