Those who fight forest fires sometimes deliberately start a second fire ahead of the one they’re trying to put out. The second fire, called a “back burn,” exhausts the fuel in front of the main fire, causing the main fire to die. Similarly, many who oppose all gun regulation say the best answer to guns in the hands of criminals is to have yet more guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens.
Now, the principle of fighting fire with more fire – and fighting gun-related crime with more guns – has been brought to politics. It’s a proposal to fight the problem of too much money in politics with — you guessed it — more money.
Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School and long-time advocate for getting money out of politics, has started a super PAC to battle the other super PACs. His project, the Mayday PAC, is a political action committee focused on campaign finance reform. The PAC takes its name from the word “Mayday,” used traditionally by sailors, aviators and others as a cry for help, and a warning of of extreme, life-threatening emergency. The Mayday PAC is raising money to take on the torrent of unregulated and undisclosed political spending that was loosed by the Supreme Court in Citizen’s United vs. FEC and later rulings.
Lessig has set very clear and specific targets. That’s a bold move, one which will give him great credibility if he can stay on track, but makes him vulnerable if the PAC slips behind its aggressive goals. Lessig aims to raise $12 million in the 2014 election cycle, and to direct that money with surgical precision toward five congressional races. The PAC will target races that offer a stark choice between the status quo of nearly unrestricted donations, and a serious commitment to campaign reform (most likely involving a constitutional amendment).
The Mayday PAC claims to be non-partisan and, in fact, it brings together an unusual mix of libertarians and liberals. Libertarians like PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman are among the top five donors to date. Perhaps they draw inspiration from Libertarian thought-leader Ayn Rand, who famously railed against corporate chieftains who seek to purchase favorable treatment from the legislature instead of winning it in the marketplace. But at the same time, the Mayday PAC has attracted a large base of small-dollar donors: 95 percent of its contributions to date come from individual citizens giving less than $200 each. These are more likely to be on the liberal/progressive end of the spectrum.
Many political commentators claim that campaign finance bores most people and will never take root as an important issue. This of course benefits those who value the status quo. It will take a constitutional amendment to undo Citizens United, and that is a big lift given that Republicans control the House and many state capitals, three fourths of which must ratify any amendment. Lessig is betting that there is so much disgust with Congress that campaign finance has the potential to become a powerful rallying point, a single issue potent enough to inspire large scale financial support, just like gun rights or abortion rights.
Lessig’s progress has been quite impressive so far; he claims to have achieved his goal of raising $6 million in roughly two months since inception, with a commitment from some wealthy donors to match it dollar for dollar. This would give the group a $12 million total budget to date.
As Mayday PAC continues its fundraising, a wide range of potential constitutional amendments have been discussed. The latest comes from Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., He calls for an amendment that allows legislators at both the federal and state level to regulate campaign spending, and which protects such regulations from free speech challenges. This joins at least six other proposals that have been advanced at the federal level. In the current political climate, none of these proposals have had much of a chance to pass, but if the Mayday PAC keeps bringing in money, and if it defeats some of the congressional champions of corporatocracy, we will see a welcome change.