Back to Watergate Era “Bags of Cash”?

NPR on what was illegal then is “fair game” now

“The pre-Watergate bags of cash are back,” declares MSNBC’s First Read this morning, pointing to a New York Times piece about how Jon Huntsman’s wealthy father is spending big money via a super PAC to help his son’s chances in New Hampshire—or how, as MSNBC puts it, “one rich friend can go around the campaign-finance limits to benefit a candidate.” More from First Read:

Just look at all the Super PACs out there. A pro-Rick Perry one is run by his former chief of staff. A pro-Romney one is led by top aides from his ’08 campaign. And one supporting President Obama is run by his former deputy press secretary… And these entities can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money. For all intents and purposes, the pre-Watergate bags of cash are now back. And it’s happening right before our eyes.

Except for the stuff that’s happening away from our eyes, which NPR’s Peter Overby touches on today in his report on super PACs. And we’re not merely back to those Watergate era “bags of cash” days, Overby explains (his story’s headline: “Illegal During Watergate, Unlimited Campaign Contributions Now Fair Game”), we are, perhaps, beyond that. Today, corporations can legally spend unlimited “bags of cash” to help elect a candidate—and, Overby notes, they can do so such that their chosen candidate is privy to their generosity but the public is not.

In 1971, Overby recalls, the Associated Milk Producers Incorporated illegally gave $2 million to President Nixon’s re-election campaign (and were promised higher milk prices in return). While corporations are still legally prohibited from donating directly to candidates, Overby reports, “the new rules of campaign finance provide a way to do what was illegal in 1971.” Today, AMPI could “give any amount it wanted to a presidential super PAC, a new creation in the 2012 elections,” explains Overby. And all the major presidential candidates have at least one such “creation” working and spending to elect them (Huntsman, for example, has the support of the Huntsman Sr.-funded Our Destiny PAC).

More Overby:

As fundraising conduits, super PACs do have a flaw. They have to disclose corporate contributions. But the new rules have a way around that too. Donors can give to a so-called issue group that is connected to the super PAC…. The super PAC discloses its donors; the issue group does not, even while running what seem like campaign ads. Several of the presidential candidates benefit from this arrangement. Former federal election commissioner Karl Sandstrom has a term for it: public anonymity and private disclosure.

“That means the public may be in the dark about who contributes. But the beneficiaries—the officeholders and the candidates—are aware of who contributes,” he says.

Have a read or listen to the whole of Overby’s report, a clear and engaging look at what can be a murky and off-putting topic.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.