The Perversion of the American Presidency

Children long have been taught by their parents that anyone in America can grow up to be president.

Today that message needs to be revised: anyone can grow up to be president if they are willing to circumvent and break the nation's anti-corruption campaign finance laws, and are willing to genuflect before the nation's wealthiest individuals.

That is the reality playing out in the 2016 presidential election.

This coming weekend, for example, four leading Republican presidential candidates, according to POLITICO, have been summoned to make their case for financial support from the Koch brothers and their network of millionaires and billionaires. The Koch brothers through their network reportedly plan to spend an extraordinary $889 million in the 2016 election cycle.

When it comes to money in politics, the unfolding race for the presidency is unlike anything we have seen in the country's history. Individual-candidate Super PACs and their super wealthy funders already have raised more than $250 million to support Republican presidential candidates, or four times the amount the Republican candidate campaigns have received.

In the process, the presidential candidates are ignoring Abraham Lincoln's wisdom that: "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool ALL of the people ALL of the time."

Presidential candidates are pretending they are not controlling the Super PACs supporting them, either directly or indirectly. They are pretending they are not soliciting huge, unlimited contributions to support their campaigns - and thereby eviscerating the candidate contribution limits of $2,700 per donor. They are pretending they are not tied to and misusing individual-candidate nonprofit groups to support their campaigns. These nonprofits in turn are pretending they are "social welfare" organizations and not political groups supporting presidential candidates.

All of this adds up to a parallel universe in the financing of presidential campaigns: an illusionary one which is being presented to the public by the presidential candidates and the real one in which presidential candidates are wiping out the campaign finance laws and in the process becoming deeply indebted to the nation's wealthiest people.

These activities are being undertaken in the face of a campaign finance law enacted in 2002, which prohibits a federal candidate from "directly or indirectly" establishing, financing maintaining or controlling an entity that raises or spends unlimited contributions -- such as a Super PAC.

Presidential candidates, however, are ignoring this prohibition and exercising "indirect control" (at a minimum) over Super PACs that are functioning as arms of their campaigns. These Super PACs are being run by individuals who previously have served the candidates as a "political alter egos," a close political adviser, a campaign manager, a chief of staff or the like.

Presidential candidates are counting on the fact that the FEC, a dysfunctional, paralyzed agency, will not enforce the campaign finance laws. And unless the Department of Justice begins to investigate these brazen campaign finance practices -- which Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center have requested -- there will be no enforcement.

The current collapse of our campaign finance laws dates back to the Citizens United decision issued in 2010 by five Supreme Court Justices who cynically or naïvely (or both) maintained that outside groups making independent expenditures could not exercise corrupting influence over officeholders and candidates.

This fallacious argument was rejected by one of the nation's leading conservative jurists. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner wrote that it "is difficult to see what practical difference there is between super PAC donations and direct campaign donations, from a corruption standpoint."

By November 2016, our next president is likely to be elected with the backing of as much as $500 million in unlimited, corrupting contributions.

The perversion of the American presidency is taking place before our eyes.

Citizens want better. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll (June 2, 2015) found that 85 percent of the American people believe fundamental changes are needed in the way our campaigns are financed.

To achieve this goal, twelve national reform organizations recently launched a national campaign. "Fighting Big Money, Empowering People: A 21st Century Democracy Agenda" provides a specific, comprehensive plan to repair our democracy and calls on the next President of the United States to commit to make this reform agenda a national priority from Day One.

There are two major reform bills pending in Congress that would fundamentally change the way our presidential campaigns are financed.

Legislation introduced by Representatives David Price and Chris Van Hollen and Senator Pat Leahy would effectively shut down the individual-candidate Super PACs that are poisoning our political system.

Legislation introduced by Representatives Price and Van Hollen and Senator Tom Udall would empower ordinary Americans to serve as a counterforce to big money by matching their small contributions to presidential candidates with multiple public funds.

The scandalous role being played by big money in American politics is headed for the breaking point. When that occurs, concerned citizens will be there ready to fight and win the battle to restore the integrity of our democracy.

Only then will parents again be able to credibly teach their children that anyone in America can grow up to be president.