Citizens United, the hurt that keeps on hurting, has struck again.
Emboldened by the now-infamous Supreme Court decision and a dysfunctional Federal Election Commission, Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C. and Nebraska have joined forces with Sen. Ben Nelson to produce and air a series of television and radio commercials that exploit the weakness of our campaign finance laws.
And they're almost certain to get away with it.
Nelson, a former Nebraska governor seeking his third Senate term next year, stars in and narrates the ads. In a 30-second TV spot that is part of the campaign, he touts his support for "common sense solutions," to "balance the budget... bring our troops home with pride and dignity and invest in American jobs."
Nelson is careful not to ask voters directly to support his reelection, but the ads look and sound as if they were financed by his re-election campaign. However the New York Times and other news outlets report that they actually were paid for by Nebraska's Democratic Party, and that most of the $600,000-plus invested in them so far came from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) in Washington.
That's where the commercials break new ground. Under longstanding campaign finance rules, the DSCC can spend only $240,000 in coordination with Nelson and his re-election campaign. Nelson and company are getting around that restriction by funneling the money through the state Democratic Party, which as an outside group is unfettered by the rules.
Thanks to Citizens United, groups operating independently of House and Senate candidates can take gifts directly from corporate and union treasuries and spend whatever they like on "issue" ads like the Nelson commercials. If other candidates follow Nelson's lead, and it's a cinch they will, we'll soon be seeing a flood of such commercials, including some financed by anonymous donors.
"That's really the problem here -- the whole notion of corporations spending unlimited funds," Washington lawyer Donald Simon, a longtime student of campaign finance laws, told the Times. "The door has been opened and the only question is how many corporate spenders are going to walk in."
American Crossroads, the fundraising powerhouse founded by veteran Republican operatives Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, already has asked the FEC for advice on whether it can legally prepare and air similar ads, presumably on behalf of GOP candidates.
There's unlikely to be an answer, at least not a direct one. Split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, the commission has been unable to agree on how to reshape campaign finance regulations in the wake of Citizens United. Its paralysis leaves candidates, parties and supposedly-independent groups like Rove's pretty well free to raise and spend political money as they please.
So big money wins again. We're headed into a campaign that will be largely financed by deep-pocketed companies and trade groups whose identities and agendas will be largely hidden from the voting public. But when the winners of those campaigns take office, you can be sure they'll know who paid for every ad and exactly what their benefactors expect in return.