IT'S TIME to face the facts. Philadelphia should do away with the strict limits on political contributions that were put into place in 2007.
The intent of the law - to curb "pay-to-play" politics - was admirable. And, for a while, it worked. But it has been undermined - eviscerated is a better word - by a series of court rulings, beginning in 2010, that swept aside the strictures placed on political contributions by corporations, unions and wealthy individuals.
Before, they were limited in how much they could contribute to a candidate; in fact, corporate giving was prohibited completely.
Now, as long as a group establishes an IEP - an Independent Expenditure PAC - or a "social welfare" 501(c)(4) entity, the caps are off. Givers can donate as much as they want and the PACs and 501(c)(4)s can spend as much as they want to support or take whacks at a candidate. The one thing they cannot do is make direct contributions to a candidate, and they are supposed to be completely independent of the candidate's campaign operation.
In 2016, the next presidential election cycle, these groups are expected to raise and spend more than $1 billion in "independent" expenditures. There are quotes around that word because there is increased evidence that these SuperPACs aren't very independent and some would-be presidential candidates are tapping top political aides to head IEPs.
The pivotal moment came in January 2010 when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling on a case called Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, opened the door to these new forms of giving in the name of free speech.
We didn't see the effects of that ruling locally until this year, when three independent SuperPACs were created to help mayoral candidates:
Building a Better Pennsylvania is a union PAC working to elect Jim Kenney. John Dougherty, head of the local electricians union, is a force behind this PAC.
Philadelphia Forward is a pro-Kenney SuperPAC that says it draws on the progressive and gay-rights communities for some of its money, but the American Federation of Teachers is expected to provide most of the cash.
American Cities is a SuperPAC created by wealthy suburban businessmen who favor charter schools and education choice. This PAC favors state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams.
All three PACs have been running ads on TV for weeks now, and their expenditures are expected range from $5 million to $8 million.
The creation of these SuperPACs has turned running for office into a tale of the haves and the have-nots - with candidates without SuperPAC support as the have-nots.
Lynne Abraham is a have-not. A popular former district attorney, she does not have any SuperPAC backing and has not been able to raise the cash needed (at least to date) to become a regular presence on TV with her own ads.
It's her case that illustrates the unfairness. Suppose I were a wealthy, Center City businessman who wanted to help Kenney. There is no ceiling on the amount I could give the Philadelphia Forward IEP. They would accept any amount. I could write them a check for $100,000.
Now, suppose I wanted to give to Abraham. Under city law, I could give her no more than $2,900 as an individual. If I have Political Action Committee, I could give her no more than $11,500.
This puts her - and all other non-IEP-supported candidates - at a disadvantage.
If the intent of the city's campaign law was to banish big money from politics, it has failed. Big money is back, simply wearing a different hat.
People seeking public office already have enough barriers to election, especially if they are running against an incumbent, who has much easier access to money through regular contributions and, now, through SuperPACs.
People like to call these IEPs "dark money," but they are not. SuperPACs must file the same campaign-disclosure statements as all others.
The 501(c)(4)s and similar 501(c)(6)s are a different matter. They are supposed to be nonprofits that support "public welfare" (in the case of 4s) or business associations (in the case of 6s). They can't run ads saying "Vote against Barack Obama" because telling people how to vote would be a partisan act. But, they can run ads saying that "Barack Obama has destroyed the American health system."
Because they are nonprofits, these groups don't have to disclose who gave them donations. That is dark money.
In Philadelphia and elsewhere, if the money is going to come in regardless, why let it in through a side door? Without contribution limits, but with frequent public disclosure, at least we will know who is supporting whom.
City Council President Darrell Clarke has introduced a bill that does not touch the contribution limits but increases the number of times candidates and PACs must disclose - from once before a primary election to four times before. Additional disclosure is a good first step, but we also have to recognize reality: Contribution limits are unworkable as long as the Citizens United ruling remains in effect. And that is going to be for a very long time.