The following editorial appeared Tuesday in the San Jose Mercury News:
You might think that the laws forbidding coordination between politicians' own campaigns and outside advocacy groups would have prevented Karl Rove from speaking Saturday at a retreat for Mitt Romney's biggest donors. But Rove, whose Crossroads GPS is probably the most widely known advocacy group, was unfazed. That tells you all you need to know about the toothless nature of campaign finance law.
As one lawyer put it recently, "The scandal in Washington is what is legal, not what is illegal."
Rove's appearance probably complies with the letter, if not the spirit, of campaign finance law, and the ads his group runs might, too. If you've seen them, you realize how absurd this is. The laws need to be tightened to do what the public expects of them.
Rove says Crossroads GPS is a "social welfare organization," not a political one. Under federal law, that means it doesn't have to disclose its donors, and that it's tax-exempt, so that in a sense, taxpayers subsidize it.
Recently on Fox, Rove said his group is "talking right now about the need to change (America's) policies on spending and debt, how we've got to rein in the debt because our debt is growing at $4 billion a day, and we need to begin to demonstrate some fiscal responsibility."
Rove talks as if his group is in the mold of deficit hawks like the nonpartisan, well-respected Concord Coalition. But anyone with eyeballs and ears connected to a brain could tell you that Crossroads GPS exists for one purpose: to defeat President Barack Obama and other Democrats this fall.
The truth is not likely to matter, though. The Obama campaign complained to the Federal Election Commission last week that Crossroads GPS is really a political committee and should be forced to disclose its donors, but the complaint probably won't be resolved until after the November election. And there's no guarantee the commission will rule in Obama's favor, since the law is so murky.
If Rove's nakedly partisan operation does indeed meet the definition of a tax-exempt social welfare organization, then those standards must be changed to comport with common sense.
There are plenty of other groups on both sides of the aisle operating in much the same way, although none compares to Rove's juggernaut. These outside groups, dominated by conservatives, may spend as much as $1 billion on the November election.
Although the laws are toothless, Congress won't beef them up. Conservatives emboldened by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision have even backed away from supporting disclosure as an antidote to the massive amounts of money flowing through the system. They now say they're worried that it would expose donors to ridicule from, oh, mean people.
Many, if not most, Americans today believe money is distorting our democracy. If disclosure laws are off the table, what chance does real campaign finance reform have?
For now, voters can only fight back by fast-forwarding through the attack ads, doing their own research on candidates and issues, and showing on Nov. 6 that they can't be bought.