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Harvard Ethics Blog: A Tale of Two PACs

By robert · On Wed, 06/25/2014 - 00:01 · In Demo Posts

This blog post was originally published at ethics.harvard.edu: http://ethics.harvard.edu/blog/tale-two-pacs

2012: For campaign finance, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Citizens United and Speechnow.org were taking effect in their first full federal election cycle. Deregulators won an unprecedented victory—a near revolution, for some—and the reformers were looking for a way forward. Media coverage for Citizens United reached its zenith since January 2010. According to Google Trends, January 2012 has the highest “interest” for the term “Citizens United” at any point after the holding was issued. The two-year anniversary and the beginning of a presidential election year was perfect for media coverage: CNN ran several small articles comparing the Watergate scandal to Citizens United; Stephen Colbert’s satirical super PAC, Americans for Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, had raised over $1 million; and students across the country were gaining attention for their super PACs.

So I thought: Why can’t I start my own super PAC? After all, student-led super PACs had a particular focus, such as “Cats for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” and “Everyone’s Favorite Group of Socially Acceptable People Who Have Happy Funtime Ideas and Team.” I chose, “Committee for the Re-Election of the President,” the name of the 1972 Nixon re-election campaign that bankrolled the Watergate Burglaries. Known as CRP by supporters, opponents cleverly dubbed it CREEP.

Not surprising, CREEP Super PAC presented a number of marketing challenges, from a logo to a web domain. To lighten things up, I devised its mission—to “raise voices not dollars”—and a website, raisevoicesnotdollars.org. I rented a PO Box through the post office at the Watergate Complex and set up a separate Georgetown credit union checking account. After filing several documents with the Federal Election Commission, CREEP Super PAC was born. At the time, I was a public policy graduate student and an intern for the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice. With no media experience, I wasn’t expecting—or prepared for—the media response.

Within a day or two after filing my papers, Kim Barker, a reporter for ProPublica, contacted me after tracking FEC filings. She wrote an article, “The Return of CREEP.” Shortly after, Bill Moyers Online ran a comparable story. Within several weeks, Eliza Newlin Carney, the lead reporter covering campaign finance for Roll Call, called me for a quote on an article, “Using Super PACs to Get Rid of Super PACs.” The day that article was published, I received a call from a producer for MSNBC’s Jansing & Co. to appear the next morning on the show. Even after the two-minute appearance on MSNBC, I received calls and emails from students, individuals and regional reporters, and even an Austrian reporter covering super PACs; I was even invited to give a guest lecture to an undergraduate class at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Of course, I was not expecting most of this when I founded CREEP Super PAC.

One of the issues I grappled with then, and now, was defining the vision and mission for a super PAC. CREEP Super PAC had two stated goals: increase disclosure and strengthen the presidential campaign finance system. However, this was through online advocacy only, with the hopes of a larger grassroots organization using the concept of CREEP Super PAC to mobilize its membership.

Using a relatively obscure political reference was, for many, an obstacle in itself. (Although, it makes for great conversation with activists and politicos!) If the goal is to educate, then I had to move beyond the reference to an obscure re-election campaign named CREEP. In 2013, I renamed my super PAC, Raise Voices Not Dollars Super PAC. I successfully registered a mark, Raise Voices Not Dollars®, under the stated goal to educate the public about campaign finance reforms. With a redesigned website, new branding, Raise Voices Not Dollars Super PAC promotes campaign finance reform with two chief objectives: (1) increase participation and (2) reduce the amount of money in campaigns. Yet, few proposals prioritize only these two goals.

One of the most novel ideas in campaign finance reform is the application of environmental economics to how campaigns raise contributions. A Yale Law Review note reviews the theory but not the implementation of such a system. While matching grants, vouchers, and tax credits are the usual solutions for campaign finance, such a system—with an imaginably large set of market protections—could reasonably limit and, over time, slow the overall amount of money in politics. It’s a provocative proposal, likely unconstitutional in several aspects, yet it’s one of the only proposals that, at its core, emphasizes Raising Voices Not Dollars®. With a Supreme Court majority that supports deregulation, an effective means to reform campaign finance with both parties is to trade sacred cows, including contribution limits.

Nearly two years after Stephen Colbert’s super PAC raised over $1 million, Prof. Lawrence Lessig aims to raise 12 times that amount with his Mayday PAC. His PAC is a completely different breed: well-funded and well-connected, with its boots-on-the-ground approach poised to have a profound impact on our politics.

There may be two tales in 2014: We are all going to reform our politics; we are all going direct the other way.