Obama, the PAC-Man

While the media elite goes after Vets for Freedom for making a TV buy for John McCain,  they're giving Barack Obama a free ride as he surfs a wave of PAC money to the Democratic nomination, a wave that, if anything, is nearing tsunami proportions despite his boasts that he doesn't accept donations from PACs.

The political committees of just one such entity -- which according to Obama's own website  he "begged" for their support -- dwarf the Vets' $1 million ad buy. According to the Center for Responsible Politics,  the Service Employees International Union spent over $9 million during a crucial three month period to help the Big O secure the Democrats' nomination. And not only did SEIU PACs spend money for Obama at a breathtaking rate  they did so in ways that could turn federal regulations governing such expenditures on their ear.

FEC rules require that such so-called "independent expenditures" by political committees be limited to communications, such as the ubiquitous TV spots and newspaper ads to which we have all become accustomed, but SEIU's PACs have paid for such campaign essentials as door-to-door canvassing for Obama, voter identification and registration, and even bus rental and food for pro-Obama rallies.

Obama can hardly claim ignorance of SEIU's free-spending M.O.  A September 17, 2007 article in The Atlantic says of Obama,

"he is a longtime friend of Chicago's SEIU Local 880 and worked closely with the union as an organizer and later as a state legislator."

The article says that as he "begged" for their support; Obama told SEIU members,

"I've spent my entire adult life working with SEIU. I'm not a newcomer to this. I didn't suddenly discover SEIU on the campaign trail."

The Obama campaign apparently has no problem with this characterization of their candidate's coziness with SEIU. They posted the article on their website

Federal records back up Obama's claim. SEIU's PAC contributed the maximum donation allowed by law to Obama's 2004 campaign for the Senate. Still, the $10,000--$5k in each 2003 and 2004 amounted to a pittance compared to the $1.2 million Obama received from PACs overall  and was infinitesimal compared to the $3 million that, again according to 
the Center for Responsible Politics, SEIU's political committee spent backing John Kerry's presidential campaign.

The difference was that the millions invested on Kerry were classified as "independent expenditures", for which there are no limits on the amount that political committees can spend on behalf of candidates.

Obama apparently learned a lesson. By opting out of accepting cash donations directly from PACs -- just as he became the first major party candidate to opt out of federal funding  and the restrictions that come with it -- Obama steered the committees who support him, and whose support he even "begged" for, down a path which allows limitless spending on his behalf.

And has he ever benefited from it! Federal records show that Obama has been the beneficiary of "independent" expenditures from moveon.org, NARAL, the United Food & Commercial Workers International, and other PACs.

But the Big Daddy to the Big O has been SEIU.

FEC-required filings show SEIU's two PACs spent over $9 million dollars supporting Obama by the end of May. The money went for such things as:

-$126,000 to the SEIU United Healthcare Workers as reimbursement for "Staff salaries,  per diem  & expenses"

-$700,000 to pay the union's own General Fund for "staff and expenseof door-to-door canvassing of voters for Obama in Pennsylvania

-$300,000 for the same in Ohio  

-$165,000 to the General Fund for get out the vote (GOTV) canvassing in Wisconsin 

-$161,000+ to SEIU for further canvassing and "voter ID/"registration  in Pennsylvania  

-$84,000+ to the SEIU Communications Center for phone bank activity to identify and register Obama voters in Pennsylvania

-$150,000 for a similar expenditure in Indiana  

-External expenditures for similar phone banks for Montana  and for GOTV and "persuasion"  in Texas

-The above-mentioned "election day rally bus rental" for the  Pennsylvania primary in the amount of $1,450

-$310.56 to a New York eatery for food expenses for the same Pennsylvania election day rally

-And, of course, millions spent for the more traditional "independent expenditures" (i.e. communications)--TV spots, direct mail, and other forms of advertising.

While there is no limit on a PAC's "independent expenditures" for a candidate, there are restrictions on how the money can be spent. The FEC definition:

"An independent expenditure is an expenditure for a communication 'expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate that is not made in cooperation, consultation, or concert with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate, a candidate's authorized committee, or their agents, or a political party or its agents.' " 

A number of the expenditures listed above, such as reimbursement of SEIU employees' per diem expenses or food for an Election Day rally, can qualify as "communication" by only the most Clintonian parsing of terms. Instead, they look like the nuts and bolts of running a campaign.

As to the second part of the definition, it is unlikely that there will ever be a smoking gun to prove that the SEIU is working "in concert with" the Obama campaign. The Obama camp has been accused of such things before, though, as officials with his own "leadership PAC"  admitted that campaign officials steered them to make donations:

"to politicians in key primary states as the campaign was working to secure endorsements. The acknowledgment ... raised questions among some legal experts about whether the presidential committee was using Obama's leadership PAC to benefit his campaign ... (R)ules state that any leadership PAC expenditure coordinated with the politician's campaign should be treated as 'in-kind contributions' subject to a limit of $5,000"

according to a WaPo story at the time.  (The story also raises to new levels Obama's hypocrisy about PAC money, since he is accused of doling out just such donations in exchange for endorsements.)

Even if overt coordination between the Obama camp and SEIU can not be proved, a San Francisco Chronicle article dated May 28th notes,

"While independent committees are required to spend their money without consulting a candidate or campaign, there's often an unspoken agreement that the official campaign puts out the feel-good ads while the independent committees go for the jugular."

And SEIU TV spots for Obama fit just that pattern, with the union promoting one such ad in a news release headlined,"SEIU Begins National TV Assault on McCain's Terrible Health Care 'Plan'."  Through May, the SEIU had spent $1.5 million opposing McCain, again according to the Center for Responsible Politics. That was before the summer, much less the fall, campaign had even gotten started.

We can only expect more of the same between now and November.

The SEIU announced on June 24th that they plan "a budget of $85 million for this election, targeting swing states for Obama's presidential campaign" and other candidates. In addition, SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger said, "More than 100,000 SEIU members will be volunteering their time to ... elect Barack Obama as our next president." (Which begs the question if the "volunteers' salaries and per diems will also be reimbursed.)

As if to intentionally add new heights to political hypocrisy, the announcement followed by mere days Obama's pronouncement that the Democratic National Committee "won't take another dime from Washington lobbyists or special interest PACs. They do not fund my campaign. They will not fund our party." 

He even managed to say it with a straight face.

Now that is audacity.

William Tate is a former award-winning journalist and the author of the novel A Time Like This "
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