Finally it’s arrived: High-rolling fat-cat campaign finance for the rest of us! The days when it took Donald Trump’s bank account and a battalion of lawyers to buy and sell political candidates like bags of potatoes are behind us. Now anybody with access to a computer, 20 minutes to spare and a low boredom threshold can set up a political action committee to funnel unlimited campaign contributions to the issue or candidate of his choice, no matter how weird, prankish or — let’s be honest here —stupid.
Seriously — well, “seriously” is probably not exactly the right word, but you get it — nothing is too bizarre, too arcane or too ridiculous to have its own super PAC. If you’re sick of American politicians who badmouth Darth Vader, you can give money to The Empire Strikes PAC, which helps candidates who favor “the construction of a safer, more x-wing resistant Death Star.”
And if you grieve that we haven’t had a bewhiskered president in the 122 years since Benjamin Harrison left the White House, send all the money you want to Bearded Entrepreneurs for the Advancement of a Responsible Democracy (that’s right, BEARD PAC), which imperiously decrees that “the time is now to bring facial hair back into politics.”
And yes, there’s even a PAC for the uncounted hordes who believe Virginia psychologist Anna Hornberger’s cat Xavier would make a good president: the My Cat Xavier for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow PAC. (Even you dog people have to admit that a president who comes with a full-time shrink attached is an idea whose time may have arrived.)
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When the U.S. Supreme Court paved the way for Super PACS in 2010 with a pair of decisions — Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission and SpeechNOW.org v. Federal Elections Commission — that established the rights of Americans to make unlimited campaign contributions as long as they go to independent committees and not directly to candidates or political parties, some political scientists predicted disastrous corruption. Others foresaw a robust expansion of the First Amendment.
What nobody expected is that creating super PACS would turn into a sort of performance art that, depending on your perspective, either joyously celebrates or cynically mocks the American political system.
“Anything you invent these days, whether it’s new social media or a different way of financing politics, the merry pranksters eventually come in and use it for practical jokes,” shrugs a philosophical Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Maine’s Colby College who has written extensively on campaign finance. “That’s just the way it is.”
More than 1,100 super PACs have registered with the Federal Election Commission for the 2016 elections, with new ones popping up every day. “Some of them are really just stalking horses for candidates and some of them are people who feel genuine passion over some particular political issue,” says Brett Kappel, a campaign-finance specialist at Washington D.C. law firm Akerman LLP.
“And then you have the ones who are pulling some kind of financial scam, and the ones who are doing it for a joke. I can’t help but notice that PACs with funny names often get set up in college towns.
Which means you are soooooo busted, Chris Taylor. A Florida State senior in political science from Pembroke Pines, Taylor last month filed paperwork with the FEC creating the Free Americans Against Nagging Imbeciles PAC. (If you haven’t gotten into the spirit of this thing yet, let us call your attention to the initials, FAANI PAC.)
“Some friends of mine and I were sitting around reading a news story about The Empire Strikes PAC — which I still think is the coolest name ever, way cooler than ours — and, I don’t know, there may have been some beer involved,” says Taylor. “And we thought, if they can do it, why not us?” Especially when he discovered the whole thing could be done by filling out a few FEC forms on the Internet.
“It took me 45 minutes, well, maybe 30, but honestly, there are guides on the Net that explain how to get it done in 10 minutes,” says Taylor. “It took me a little longer because I got paranoid and started paying attention to dotting every little I. When I finished, I was kind of expecting a call from the FEC telling me to cut the crap. But nothing happened.”
Creating FAANI PAC started out purely as a cynical joke, Taylor says, but now he and his buddies are thinking of getting more serious about it, raising money for candidates with moderate views who don’t shout too much. First, though, is the more critical task of getting drunk on power.
“Right now I’m the treasurer, but I’m thinking I might make myself ‘super overlord,’” he muses. “And maybe one of the other guys will be ‘minister of propaganda.’ Hey, we can name ourselves anything we want. It’s our super PAC.”
Taylor’s expectation that the FEC could have him shot, or least heartily whipped, for clowning around with the levers of democracy is a common one. It is groundless. The FEC, as it wearily tells cackling reporters who call to ask how it could permit the registration of super committees with names like Fat Old Man PAC, Hall & Oates Fans for America PAC, Hilary Shmilary PAC and Hitch a Wang Bang Noodle 911 Night Long PAC (real, every one of them), has no authority to judge the sincerity or even sanity of applications. It just checks to make sure the paperwork is all in order.
“We have to treat every submission the same,” says FEC spokesman Christian Hilland.
That’s why super PACS like Americans Against Americans Who Do Not Recycle And Misspell Bengazi, Dogs Against Romney and Americans for More Rhombus (first line on its website: “What the heck is this? Why do we need more geometry?”) are still drifting around out there in the cybermist, waiting for donors.
But the FEC does have one hidden superpower: The ability to scare the bejeezus out of practical jokers. Once a super PAC is registered, it has to file financial reports twice a year (and much more often during election years). Super PAC treasurers and super overlords who fail to get their paperwork in on time get sinister-sounding government letters warning they can be fined thousands of dollars, as Shippensburg (Pa.) University political science professor Alison Dagnes discovered to her horror after assigning her students to set up super PACs as part of a simulated election.
“The kids came to me and they were just stricken,” recalls Dagnes of her brush with federal fugitivehood earlier this year. “They were waving these letters and saying, ‘What are we going to do? What are we going to do?’”
The students had been warned they were about to be fined for failure to file reports for their super PACs, Americans Against Impersonators (a derisive reference to one of the mock candidates, a political science professor who does frequent impressions of Bill Clinton and Beyonce) and The Willy Wrappers (don’t ask).
Dagnes, after consulting with an attorney friend, wrote a supplicatory letter in which she did everything short of smear the ink with tear stains to beg forgiveness. “Everything is OK now, my good name is cleared,” she said last week. “Though for a while there, I thought I was going to wind up in the clink.”
However, she’s still working on winning absolution from some of her faculty colleagues. Her students, in another burst of enthusiasm during the mock election, placed robo-calls to the entire political science department.