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Campaign finance law: America’s unfunny joke

These days, every presidential candidate must have a slush fund. Can you match the following candidates — Jeb Bush, Martin O’Malley and Scott Walker — with their personal super PAC or 527 group? The choices are: O'Say Can You See, Right to Rise and Our American Revival.

Extra points if you can name the candidate who also has a nonprofit advocacy group with the words “Policy Solutions” tacked on to the name of his super PAC.

Sorry, that was a trick question. None of the men listed above are candidates for the presidency. Not yet anyway. Not officially. They are all merely “exploring” a run, although they might not even concede that much.

And as long as they do not officially declare their candidacy, politicians can raise loads of money for their super PACS without having to report the donations or stay within limits that keep individuals from contributing more than $2,700 in the primary season. That’s the law. This is how candidates skirt it.

It’s why Jeb Bush quickly backtracks each time he verbally stumbles and refers to his run for the White House. Here’s just one recent example: “I’m running for president in 2016 and the focus is going to be about how we — if I run — how do you create high sustained economic growth.”

Meanwhile, Bush is keeping a nonstop schedule of fundraiser appearances for his super PAC, Right to Rise. He conducts media interviews and comments regularly on issues like a man who is pursuing the presidency.

Right to Rise is expected to stockpile $100 million by the end of May. Under federal election law, once a candidate who is “testing the waters” for a run spends more than $5,000, he or she must register with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), report campaign contributions and comply with other requirements.

Bush is clearly done testing. But he’s still flouting the law.

Once he gets honest and declares, Bush will have to sever coordination ties between his campaign and the super PAC. It won’t matter by then. Bush has already ensured that Right to Rise will be able to fund many a nasty attack ad on his behalf. And he'll be able to distance himself from any nastiness.

Exactly when is a candidate a candidate? This shouldn’t be a difficult question.

If you are thinking that there ought to be some sort of federal watchdog that keeps candidates within the law, there is. That’s the FEC, which was set up after the scandal of Watergate.

Unfortunately, it’s useless. The chairman of the commission has admitted as much in early May.

“The likelihood of the laws being enforced is slim,” Ann M. Ravel, told the New York Times. “I never want to give up, but I’m not under any illusions. People think the FEC is dysfunctional. It’s worse than dysfunctional.”

The reason is the same sort of partisanship that stymies Congress. The six-member group, by law, consists of three Democrats and three Republicans. But it appears to be permanently splintered along those party lines.

The FEC meets in secret, and by law its doings remain confidential. Members could vote ethics over party loyalty, but they don’t.

Given the commission’s worthlessness, two liberal watchdog groups appealed to Attorney General Loretta Lynch this week (May 27) to appoint a special counsel to investigate. Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 want scrutiny of the super PACS, especially Bush’s.

It might help if voters demanded reform. But mass public backlash seems unlikely. A vicious circle is developing. Public confidence is eroded by unchecked campaign funding and evidence that wealthy donors are heavily influencing candidate agendas and policy. Voters don’t believe their vote counts and sit out at the polls.

A record $10 billion is expected to be spent in the pursuit of the White House in 2016. Cash is already being stockpiled, unchecked. And Americans may end up getting not the government that they want or deserve but the one that others have bought for them.

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may contact her at msanchez@kcstar.com.

©2015 The Kansas City Star

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