Insider: Here’s How to Ensure Super PACs Don’t Pay to Play

Vidas: City law needs to recognize the post-Citizens United world that we live in.

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider.)

As political pundits begin their postmortem on Philadelphia’s 2015 citywide election less than a week from now, I predict we will see a pattern emerge in most of the stories.

They will talk about how boring it was (doing a disservice to us all, IMHO). They will talk about the impact (or lack thereof) millennials had at the polls. They will talk about the phenomenon that “racial math” played in the outcome. But most of all, they will dedicate paragraph upon paragraph to analyzing the role that independent expenditures played in this race.

As of the last campaign finance report, independent expenditure committees spent more than $7 million in support of or in opposition to candidates for city office. The explosion of IE spending is a direct result of local campaign finance limitations put in place for 2007 and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which struck down attempts to limit independent expenditures by corporations.

Money in politics is like water: necessary for survival and always able to find its way through the tiniest crack, in this case our campaign finance laws.

Campaign finance law serves three important purposes. First, disclosure requirements ensure that voters know who is financially backing a candidate. Second, limitations on giving ensure that donors are not able to disproportionately influence elections or candidates. Lastly, attribution and contracting rules ensure that those who are giving to candidates are not receiving an unfair benefit as a result of that influence.

That last piece of the puzzle is where Philadelphia may be able to get a handle on reducing the influence of independent expenditures by outside groups.

While most of the focus of the success of campaign finance law has centered on the strict limitations enacted by City Council, the real victory can be found buried in the contracting section of the Philadelphia Code — 17-1400, which governs non-competitively bid contracts. This is the provision that helped wipe out the dark cloud known as “pay-to-play” that enveloped City Hall in previous mayoral administrations.

In short, the law disqualifies individuals and businesses from receiving no-bid city contracts if they give more than allowed under campaign finance limits. The key provision is one that considers donations as coming from the same source if they are made by immediate family members, business partners, officers, or directors, as well as political action committees controlled by the business, affiliates or partners. These strict rules prevent companies doing business with the city from skirting campaign finance laws by bundling contributions from employees, business partners or family members.

City Council is considering a bill that would strengthen disclosure requirements related to independent expenditures. The bill, if passed, would take effect in July of this year, plenty of time before the general election. This is a good first step and one that other cities, such as New York, have taken. However, the law governing pay-to-play hasn’t been substantively updated to recognize the post-Citizens United world that we live in. The biggest issue with the law as written is that disqualification from city contracting opportunities is triggered by contributions to candidates. In an election where independent expenditure groups out-raised and outspent the combined candidates by a 2-to-1 margin, it is clear that we need to expand the law to go beyond direct contributions.

I’m not suggesting that any of the groups that have been active in this campaign are attempting to engage in pay-to-play contracting with the city. While no water has seeped through this particular crack, we shouldn’t wait until we’re standing waist-deep before we fix the leak.

Lauren Vidas co-chairs the policy committee of Jim Kenney’s mayoral campaign. She also operates the Philadelphia-based public strategies firm Hazzouri and Associates. Previously, she worked for City Council and in Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration. Follow her on Twitter @broadandmarket.