March 3, 2013

David Rohde: Money gets a new seat at table in White House

If George W. Bush had launched such a group, the coverage would be overwhelming and the criticism widespread. On Feb. 22, a story by Nicholas Confessore of the New York Times revealed that President Obama's political team is trying to raise $50 million to fund the conversion of his re-election campaign into Organizing for Action, a "powerhouse" new national lobbying group.

The story said that at least half of the organization's budget will come from a small number of well-connected donors who each raise or contribute more than $500,000. In return, those donors get a spot on a national advisory board, the right to attend quarterly meetings with the president and access to other White House meetings.

"Unlike a presidential campaign, Organizing for Action has been set up as a tax-exempt 'social welfare group,' " Confessore wrote. "That means it is not bound by federal contribution limits, laws that bar White House officials from soliciting contributions or the stringent reporting requirements for campaigns. In their place, the new group will self-regulate."

In other words, the organization will function as a de facto super PAC with little transparency. As Chris Cillizza pointed out  in The Washington Post last week, the creation of Organizing for Action is no surprise. Whatever his public statements have been, Obama has exacerbated the insidious role of money in politics.

In 2008 he became the first major-party nominee to forgo public presidential campaign financing, effectively ending the system created after the Watergate scandal. Obama declared that Republicans were "masters of gaming this broken system," but his massive advantage in fund-raising during the general election helped cement his victory over John McCain.

In 2010, Obama again decried the role of money in politics. In his State of the Union address, he criticized the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, which legalized the creating of super PACs.

"Last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests -- including foreign corporations -- to spend without limit in our elections," the president said.

Yet no major White House campaign finance initiative emerged. And in 2012, Obama created his own super PAC during his battle with Mitt Romney. Cillizza -- and Obama's supporters -- correctly point out that the president had to respond to hundreds of millions in spending by conservative super PACs such as American Crossroads.

Last week, advocates of campaign finance reform angrily criticized the president for creating a group like Organizing for Action. Bob Edgar, the president of Common Cause, called for Obama to shut down the group and work for campaign finance reforms that disempower, not empower, deep-pocketed donors.

"His record for the past five years has been dismal on the issue of reform," Edgar said in an interview. "It's another example where the president doesn't look that different from Karl Rove."

The White House referred all questions to Organizing for Action. A spokeswoman for the group did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Aides to the president argued to Confessore that they had no choice. They say conservative Republicans rebuffed the president's first-term efforts to strike compromises. They see Organizing for Action as a liberal counterweight to groups like the National Rifle Association, which has used its deep coffers to vanquish political opponents for decades.

Edgar, the head of Common Cause, argued that Obama should make reducing the influence of large donors a priority in his second term. Instead, Organizing for Action elevates their importance and cements the rise of a new type of American politics: fundraising and campaigning on an ever-increasing scale.

Confessore said Organizing for Action will pay for ads, rent, salaries and the maintenance of vast databases listing the president's 22 million Twitter followers, 17 million email subscribers and 2 million volunteers. On Feb. 22, thousands of Obama supporters held rallies outside 80 lawmakers' offices across the country and bombarded them with phone calls and email.

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