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    The endless flood of PAC spending shows the need to reform campaign financing laws
    • February 22, 2024

    As Election Day March 5 marches toward us, voters will get even more mail flyers than already. Video ads also will flood TV shows and social media posts. 

    But look carefully to see where they’re from. Here’s one I got in Irvine: “Republican Dr. Steven Choi Fights Taxes.” The former assemblyman is running for state Senate in the 37th District. The flyer is paid for by Uber Innovation Political Action Add Committee’s Top Funder.

    Another flyer boasts, “Planned Parenthood Endorses Josh Newman for State Senate,” also for the 37th District. He’s the incumbent Democrat currently in the 29th District. Except the ad was paid for by Uber Innovation. Notice the different issues: taxes for Republicans, abortion for Democrats.

    The key here is Assembly Bill 5 from 2019, which made many part-time “gig” workers, including Uber drivers, full-time employees, a terrible law. Choi voted against it. Newman briefly was out of the Senate because he was recalled for supporting Senate Bill 1 in 2017, which raised gas taxes $5 billion a year. He was elected again in 2020.

    Uber and Lyft spent $193 million in 2020 passing Proposition 22, which exempted themselves from AB 5. Now, Uber wants to cover both parties in the Nov. 5 runoff in the 37th.

    How did we get here? Blame OC native son Richard Nixon. The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 mandated disclosing campaign contributions. Then, as the Watergate scandal drove him from office in 1974, the Democratic Congress amended the act. The changes set up the Federal Election Commission and limited campaign contributions by individuals, political parties and political action committees.

    In the 1976 Buckley decision, on First Amendment grounds, the U.S. Supreme Court exempted from the law individual contributions to one’s own campaign – giving a big advantage to rich, self-financed candidates.

    The 2010 Citizens United decision threw out any limits on independent expenditures by corporations, unions and their political action committees – PACs. Hence the Uber and many other PACs.

    Today in California, the Fair Political Practices Commission lists limits that include $5,500 for the Assembly, state Senate and local offices; and $36,400 for governor. But political parties and PACs “may receive contributions in excess of the limits.” The Federal Elections Commission says contributions to U.S. House, Senate and presidential candidates are limited to $3,300 per election.

    I’ve known dozens of candidates, and except for the self-funded ones, they all have to spend many hours begging for small contributions. Then they face not only an opponent’s onslaught, but that of the often better-funded PACs. It’s supposed to be “democratic” because financial support allegedly comes from the grassroots, but is the opposite.

    Because campaign laws are so complex, and fundraising so daunting, campaigning also has become a highly specialized profession run by a few experts. If you’re a small-time candidate, forget it.

    This system is anti-democratic and gives vast advantages to millionaires, incumbents, and the special interests. Wonder no more why the federal government is $34 trillion in debt and California is running a deficit this year of at least $38 billion. They call it “pay to play.” You pay the candidates, and they let you play with the taxpayers’ dollars.

    What’s needed is a reform of the reform. First, keep the good part: contribution disclosure. Let us know who’s paying whom.

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    Second, throw out all the other laws. Although the courts have upheld the contribution limits, all limits actually violate the First Amendment guarantee against abridging “freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

    If I like Candidate A better than Candidate B, why can’t I give $10,000 to A? Why instead can Millionaire X, Union Y or Corporation Z form a PAC to spend $1 million backing Candidate B?

    Under this reform, most of the PAC and other independent schemes would vanish, as candidates would gather most or all of the money to themselves, with full disclosure. The candidates, mano a mano, again would control the tenor and tempo of campaigns. That’s real democracy.

    John Seiler is on the SCNG Editorial Board and blogs at

    ​ Orange County Register