Super PACS Create Fairness?

Super PACS have contributed millions of dollars to shape the 2012 presidential election. The "Citizens United" Supreme Court case paved the way for them. David Bossie, president of the conservative advocacy group Citizens United, speaks with host Michel Martin about how Super PACS could even the playing field.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, these days money is tight but some people aren't just looking for bargains. They want to spend their money in a way that reflects their values. Later in the program we are going to meet a woman who tried to shop for her family exclusively at black-owned businesses for a year. We'll find out why she wanted to do that and how her experiment turned out.

That's later in the program. But first to an issue that is shaping our politics today, especially this year's presidential race. Now, you've probably heard of Super Political Action Committees or superPACs. The landmark Supreme Court case Citizens United vs. The Federal Election Commission was one of the reasons why. In 2010 the Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot limit the amount of money corporations and unions spend on political issues. Now, this is the first presidential election where these groups can raise unlimited amounts of money as long as they don't coordinate messages with a campaign.

Critics complain that superPACs are tainting America's elections by allowing wealthy individuals or well-funded groups to steer millions of dollars to favored candidates. President Obama was among those critics in his 2011 State of the Union address and here's a short clip of what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people.

MARTIN: But earlier this month, the president's reelection team opened the door to the pro-Obama group known as Priorities USA Action. The president and his surrogates argue that in the current environment a refusal to do so would put the president at too great a disadvantage. We wanted to talk more about superPACs and their effect on elections right now so, we decided to call on one of the key players that led to the creation of them. He is David Bossie. He is the president and chair of the advocacy group Citizens United, and as we said, that's one of the groups behind one of the court cases that wiped out previous restrictions on campaign funding.

Mr. Bossie, thank you so much for joining us.

DAVID BOSSIE: Oh, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So is this what you envisioned?

BOSSIE: No, actually, not at all. I went to the Supreme Court, which most people don't realize it was - took me several years to get there, and I went because the federal government threatened me with jail time if I produced a documentary film and advertised it on television, and so we looked into the law and we realized that people like NPR, people like the Washington Post, and television, newspapers, radio had something called the media exemption and therefore they could do whatever they want.

They could put an editorial on the front page or on the back page. They could endorse a candidate and talk about candidates, but people, small organizations like Citizens United - which is a, you know, an organization with 25 employees, we have an under-$30-million-a-year annual budget, and we work very hard and we wanted to make a film, a documentary film about Hillary Clinton and educate people about the movie's existence, and we were told that if we did that, it was punishable by a prison term.

And so I said we're not going to be looking over our shoulder. We're going to sue them, and that's why we were on the offense, not on the defense in that case.

MARTIN: And I do have to clarify that NPR does not endorse candidates, but I know you knew that. I know you knew that.

BOSSIE: I was saying - of course the media exemption.

MARTIN: I gotcha. So as you know, superPACs have been bringing in a lot of money for candidates. For example, the superPAC Restore Our Future, which is backing Mitt Romney, raised more than $36 million by the end of last month. It has eight donors of a million dollars each, 13 more who gave a half a million dollars each, and that superPAC has actually been out-raising Mr. Romney's actual campaign. So I'm interested in your perspective on those who say that this is just unfair, it's just allowing a few people to dominate the process. What do you say to that?

BOSSIE: Well, look - I think that the American people are incredibly smart. And look, you know, I'm not a Mitt Romney fan, so if it wasn't for his superPAC, he'd have dwindled even farther than he already has, and I think next week's going to be a huge comeuppance to him in Michigan. But regardless to that fact is that people can participate in the political process and that is a good thing. Whether people are envious of folks who can write large checks or jealous, that's one thing, and I am.

I wish I could afford to be able to do that and I wish I could get people just to write checks, those checks, to me. But you know what? Mitt Romney has rich friends. Those rich friends want to help that superPAC. Barack Obama is going to outspend, just like he did John McCain in 2008 - Barack Obama, his campaign, his superPAC, the DNC and others, they're going to outspend the Republican nominee two, or two and a half, to one, and I think that the Republicans who have these superPACs are simply attempting to level the playing field with the unions in the left, the George Soroses of the world that have been supporting the left for years.

MARTIN: I'm talking with David Bossie. He's the president and chair of the conservative group Citizens United. Citizens United was one of the groups that the Supreme Court case lead to the creation of superPACs, and we're talking about the effect that they're having on the campaign now and his perspective on that. But as you mentioned, you're not wealthy. You're not personally wealthy, and your superPAC, it's - what, had about $1.4 million in cash by the end of last year? Do I have that right?

BOSSIE: Our PAC, we - that is Citizens United Political Victory Fund, that's our affiliated PAC. We raise money only from our membership.

MARTIN: But...

BOSSIE: So we have - and we have a $15 average gift. It's really a remarkable thing and we're really proud of it.

MARTIN: And I wanted to ask you about that, because what do you say to people who are not wealthy, who are maybe social workers or elementary school teachers or firefighters - I know you're a volunteer firefighter - or infantrymen...

BOSSIE: Yup.

MARTIN: ...who say that their line of work is valuable but that it is not highly compensated and they feel that their influence is being dwarfed by people who happen to have chosen a more remunerative line of work. What do you say to that?

BOSSIE: Sure, and each person is, you know, lives their life and has to deal with those realities that they have. And as I just pointed out, Citizens United, which is one of the most effective conservative organizations in the country, and we take great pride in being, you know, very - a very effective organization and - but we take our donors' money and their donations very seriously and we're very good stewards...

MARTIN: And I understand that, Mr. Bossie. I'm asking you about what if it is true that wealthy people are having a disproportionate impact on the race? I'm asking you, is that okay with you or do you just not think that that's the case?

BOSSIE: Well, look - money is speech and people who can spend more get more speech. I mean that is just - that is the system that we have and that's been the system. Look, when Barack Obama and John McCain ran in 2008, Barack Obama outspent John McCain over two to one, and therefore Barack Obama had more speech because he had more money...

MARTIN: But wasn't that Mr. McCain's choice? It was Mr. McCain's choice or the choice of his campaign not to adhere to particular restrictions on fundraising...

BOSSIE: But that's - my point is...

MARTIN: Couldn't he have...

BOSSIE: ...Barack Obama was playing with - I'm not saying it's anybody's fault. I'm saying that Barack Obama played within the rules. John McCain actually made the rules. It was kind of funny from my vantage point to watch him lose a race because he decided to follow the McCain-Feingold law. And so my point is Barack Obama shouldn't be negatively affected by the rules, and therefore he should go out this year and raise money for his superPAC.

Look, I - do I think it's hypocritical? Do I think he attacked Citizens United and he demeaned the United States Supreme Court, he demeaned the presidency by attacking the Supreme Court...

MARTIN: Actually, Mr. Bossie, I was asking you what you think. I'm asking you about your perception of the system and I'm also asking you whether you - what do you say to the argument that it has created the perception of an unfair advantage and that perception is itself meaningful? I just want to point out, I'm sure you know this, in the past few days Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Steven Breyer wrote that it's hard to believe that the spending by corporations does not, quote, "give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption."

So I'm asking you - even if it's just the perception of an unfair advantage, is that okay?

BOSSIE: Who's unfair advantage?

MARTIN: Of wealthy individuals and well-funded entities like corporations or unions, the argument that these individuals have an outsized say that diminishes the fundamental concept of one man-one voter, one person-one vote.

BOSSIE: Oh, no, no, no, no. Look, hey, look. I think, if you are, you know, an American and you want to participate, you participate at the level in which you can and that's all we - each of us can do and I believe in that. I think that that's fine. I donate $50 or $100 to a candidate and somebody else can donate $2,500, which is the personal maximum, to a candidate. Those things haven't changed under Citizens United.

What's changed is the superPACs and the superPACs are able to take unlimited individual contributions and corporate money and the unions are able to participate at the same level.

So those unions, which are made up of - just like the PAC - is made up of their members and are supposed to be representing their members - they get to the electricians and plumbers and the people that, in essence, are saying that they don't have the wherewithal like a rich Donald Trump, Shelly Adelson, George Soros type. Those people are all spoken for through their organizations if they so choose.

So I have no problem with people being able to do whatever they can afford or doing nothing. A lot of people choose to do nothing.

MARTIN: Now, the final question I have for you - we have about a minute and a half left - is you know that this has created a very strong reaction among some people, mainly on the left, who feel that this has kind of tilted the scales. But I wanted to ask if you have any argument for them, for people who really do feel that this has sort of put the finger on the scale of participation in a way that's unfair. Do you have an argument that you think might be persuasive to them?

BOSSIE: Well, I do have an opinion on that. I believe that - yes - we have put the finger on the scale to get it back to level, meaning, for years, the George Soros type of left wing donor, the unions across the United States have been dominating the political process by their donations and by their money and by their manpower. And now, through these superPACs, you know, some of these conservative candidates are able to offset that and I think that that's, to me, the upside of it.

Now, the left is able to do it. The unions are able to use this rule. Barack Obama can use this rule. It treats everybody equally. If you can go out and raise the money, you can participate.

MARTIN: David Bossie is president and chair of the conservative advocacy group, Citizens United. He was kind enough to join us on the phone from his office in Washington, D.C. Mr. Bossie, thank you so much for speaking with us. Hope you'll speak again.

BOSSIE: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, today is Mardi Gras. That means shiny beads, rich feasts and for the so-called Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans, regalia to die for.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It'll be a big crown, weighs about 65 pounds and it's kind of hard to put it on your head to go to certain places, but the feeling that you have in your heart lets you go that way.

MARTIN: We'll find out more about this New Orleans tradition and why the New Orleans police seem to look askance at grown men wearing feathers. That's ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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