Look it up, and the answer is $5,000 — $2,500 for the primary and $2,500 for the general election. Those are, in fact, the legal limits on individual contributions. But, really, that's so two years ago.
Thanks largely to federal court decisions in 2010 that opened the way for virtually unlimited spending by corporations, labor unions and individuals, those limits are essentially gone — and the effects aren't pretty.
In the past several months, for example, Edward Conard, a former colleague of Mitt Romney's at Bain Capital, gave the Republican front-runner a $1 million contribution. Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation, gave President Obama $2 million. And Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson gave GOP candidate Newt Gingrich $5 million.
Yes, technically, these donors didn't give the money to the candidates. Instead, they donated to so-called Super PACs, powerful new campaign organizations with deceptive names that have emerged as titans in the 2012 presidential contest. A Super PAC can accept unlimited donations and spend as much as it likes to support a particular candidate (or tear down his or her opponents). The only catch is that it must be independent: It can't have a link to the candidate or coordinate with the candidate's campaign.
That lack of connection is largely a fiction, however. Super PACs might as well be wings of the campaigns they support. Typically, they're run by the candidate's former staffers. The treasurer of the pro-Romney group Restore Our Future is Charles Spies, who was legal counsel for Romney's 2008 campaign. The pro-Obama group Priorities USA Action was formed by two former White House staffers, Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney.
And while it's possible that Super PAC officials avoid consulting with their former colleagues at the campaigns, why would they need to? When Gingrich shot past Romney in the Iowa polls, the mission of Restore Our Future was obvious: Do Romney's dirty work for him by running ads to savage Gingrich and drive down his poll numbers. So it did.
And when an angry Gingrich said he planned to lash back at Romney, his former press secretary Rick Tyler, an adviser to the pro-Gingrich Super PAC Winning Our Future, said he took his "cue" from his former boss' comments. Now Winning Our Future is sponsoring a harsh anti-Romney video in South Carolina, site of the next Republican primary.
The most pernicious aspect of Super PACs isn't that they can play hardball while the candidate pretends to stay positive. That sort of hypocrisy is standard campaign practice. It's that any individual, any corporation and any labor union can — in effect — give a candidate unlimited amounts of money. When candidates have to raise campaign funds from the very people they regulate, which has been the case of years, politics becomes a barely controlled form of legalized bribery. When the money is unlimited, it's a scandal waiting to happen.
Think about it: Would a president refuse to take a phone call from someone who gave "his" Super PAC $5 million? Does anyone seriously believe money doesn't at least buy access, and at worst buy results? Or signal voters that the voices that really count are the ones who write the biggest checks?
We've long advocated public financing of campaigns, which would free candidates from having to beg for dollars or worry about repaying donors once in office. That's still a worthy cause, though a distant one because those who benefit from the current system successfully demonize it as taxpayer funding of politicians.
In the meantime, there is no obvious, constitutional way to disarm the Super PACs. Perhaps the most that can be done is to require them to disclose their donors in real time. That way, even if candidates aren't directly approving the message, voters will know who is.
OPPOSING VIEW: President Obama's former White House staffers set up an organization called Priorities USA that ran the first attack ads by third-party groups in the 2012 election cycle, broadcast against Mitt Romney in South Carolina in April 2011. In light of this history, the selective outrage by liberal editorial boards regarding the activities of Restore Our Future, an independent super PAC supporting Romney, a conservative businessman, is somewhat hard to stomach. Worse yet, Obama-supporting Priorities USA is a 501(c)(4) organization that does not disclose its donors.
In contrast to Priorities USA, Restore Our Future fully reports all of our donors for public scrutiny, in compliance with Federal Election Commission regulations. This is a level of transparency that we urge President Obama's supporters to also follow.
The content of our advertisements has also provided a valuable service in the Republican primary. Judging by the daily attacks against Romney by Obama's team, they are deathly afraid of running against him in the general election, and the dearth of their attacks on Speaker Gingrich indicates that they are salivating over the idea of his getting a free pass on his baggage in the primary. We are committed to not letting that Obama dream scenario play out, and instead making Obama defend his economic record against Romney in the general election.
For those who don't like the current campaign-finance system, blame should not be placed on the Supreme Court's defense of free speech in Citizens United v. FEC, but instead should be directed towards the restrictive campaign-finance regulations of the McCain-Feingold law. The way to decrease the impact of outside organizations is to remove the contribution limitations to campaigns, which coupled with immediate reporting of contributors would ensure that candidates are held accountable for the conduct of their own campaigns.
Charlie Spies, an attorney at Clark Hill PLC, serves as treasurer for Restore Our Future, a Super PAC that supports Mitt Romney.