Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Loebsack and PACs

Loebsack and PACs

Dave Loebsack’s been in for a bit of right-wing baiting here on the internets for taking a few PAC contributions, and getting unfavorably compared to his predecessor who trumpeted a no-PAC pledge. The noise calls for a reasoned response.

Civics 101: Present interpretations (Buckley vs. Valeo) hold that campaign spending is a form of free speech. And PAC is short for political action committee, a form of free association protected under the constitution. A PAC is just a mechanism to bundle smaller donations into larger ones, and a no PAC pledge just a buzzword.

Rather than bashing the mechanism, it’s important to look at the details. Which PACs are we talking about? I recall Tom Harkin discussing labor PACs back in his presidential campaign days: if the boss writes a $5000 check, that's OK, but if 1000 workers kick in 5 bucks each, that's not? How is a donation from a corporate PAC worse than a donation of equal size from a "private citizen" CEO?

And that appears to be what’s happened with Loebsack. The vast majority of his PAC contributions have been from organized labor. That’s a funding stream not generally available to Republicans, and it underscores the emptiness in Leach’s no-PAC stance. In 2006 Leach received $62,429 from persons listing an occupation of “president,” CEO,” “owner” or some combination of those. Compare that to no CEOs or presidents and $6,015 from “owners” for Loebsack (and they tend to be owners of things like the Lincoln Café in Mt. Vernon)

Another source of Loebsack’s PAC money was candidate committees, largely presidential campaigns. Democrats supporting Democrats. What a shocker. (That’s also just about the only sort of national party support Dave got; by and large this was a locally funded and operated campaign.)

Leach also, throughout his career, took indirect PAC money laundered through Republican Party committees and independent expenditures. That only amounted to $34,000 this cycle but was over $270,000 in the 2002 race. The Republicans who continue to trumpet “no PAC” ignore this hypocrisy.

It should also be noted that Leach had a $187,000 debt to himself in October (a loan likely to be eaten since no one donates to defeated politicians). That's a pittance by modern campaign standards, but well over a third of his total budget and well beyond the means of a professor at a small liberal arts college. It was easy for Leach to live with a no PAC pledge because he always had that personal wealth at his disposal.

The Loebsack-Leach race was a model for voluntary spending restraint on both sides. Each spent roughly a half million – which pales in comparison to Bruce Braley’s $2.2 million, Mike Whalen’s $2.3 million, and Leonard Boswell and Jeff Lamberti’s $2.0 million each.

Systemic campaign finance reform is needed, and ultimately public finance is the best and fairest solution. In the short run, the single greatest campaign cost is broadcast advertising, and some fair system of time allocation would reduce costs and financial demands.

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