The mission is simple, if not counterintuitive: Design a super PAC to destroy all super PACs, huge political action committees that allow for unlimited contributions from people, corporations, associations, and unions.
Mayday PAC was launched recently by Harvard Law School professor, author, and activist Lawrence Lessig, and, according to its website, is “a crowdfunded, kickedstarted super PAC to end all super PACs.”
The group is funded by donations large and small from people all over the country, with the goal of raising $12 million to start a campaign finance reform effort in five congressional districts and get five candidates elected to Congress who are willing to change the way campaigns are funded.
In the billion-dollar-world of super PAC fund-raising — they have raised about $890 million in the past 18 months — $12 million might seem like a drop in the bucket.
But, Lessig said in an interview, think of the $12 million as the startup cost to fund the first wave of reformers — the five candidates during this election cycle — “to teach us what works and send a message to Congress that we’ll be back and we’re going to be much bigger.”
“Let’s think of Eric Cantor’s demise. We want to have about five of those cases,” he said.
Then, Mayday PAC plans to use the lessons learned to get a large slate of candidates into office in 2016, with the aim of 218 in the House of Representatives and 60 in the Senate.
And, yes, Lessig knows how this all sounds. As his website says “Ironic? Yes. Embrace the irony.” The point, he said, is to use irony as an attention-grabbing tool to tap into frustration about how political campaigns are financed.
If successful, Mayday PAC, which started May 1, will have gone from an ideological concept to a political war chest in about two months.
If the group fails to meet its target, the donations will be refunded. To date, it has raised $3 million.
“The last couple of years, a bunch of us began to realize that the pathology that was the way members of Congress raise money has brought us to a standstill,” Lessig said in an interview. “Left or right, it doesn’t matter what side. People are so skeptical of government because they see money dominating what government does.”
The PAC is made up of a five-member board that includes Mark McKinnon, media consultant to both of George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns and John McCain’s 2008 campaign.
A growing movement is pushing back against the array of outside groups that has proliferated since the 2010 Citizens United decision by the US Supreme Court, which opened the door to unlimited spending by unions and corporations in political races.
Critics of the system say they want to get enough people involved to dilute the handful of wealthy donors and big-money groups who are essentially drowning out everybody else.
Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a group that advocates for government reform including reducing the influence of money in politics, said because of so-called super PACs, “average American voices are becoming more and more muffled. That is bad for democracy, and that is bad for America.”
Her group, which worked on pending legislation in Massachusetts to require real-time disclosure of donors, would like to see limits put on how much outside groups can spend on campaigns, the public financing of elections, and pledges by candidates to reject outside money.
“Ultimately, what Larry Lessig believes, and we agree, is that we need a constitutional amendment to deal with money in politics because our Supreme Court has really gone off the rail,” Wilmot said. “The Constitution doesn’t say money is speech. Certainly, you need money to amplify speech, but you don’t have the right to drown out other speakers, which is essentially what happens in the political arena today.”
A constitutional amendment is Mayday PAC’s ultimate goal, but the group’s first step is statutory reform. Once the PAC has helped elect enough candidates committed to campaign finance reform, then it will turn its attention to constitutional reform.
Mayday PAC, like other super PACs, will spend its money independent of any political candidate.
The names of those who contribute more than $200 will be reported to the Federal Election Commission. The names of large contributors will be listed on its website.
The $12 million total has been broken into chunks. The first goal was to raise $1 million by the end of May — a feat accomplished in the first 13 days of the effort. Once a goal is achieved, it is matched by larger contributions raised by high-dollar donors.
“Then we launched this much more ambitious, might be too ambitious, might be too depressingly ambitious, goal,” he said of the second stage of fund-raising: $5 million by July 4.
The money isn’t coming in as swiftly. As of Saturday, Mayday PAC had reached 42 percent of its target, or about $2.1 million. “When I proposed this people said, ‘$5 million is too big. You need to do it in smaller chunks. People need to feel like they have a chance,’ ” he said.
There has been resistance not only to the aggressive fund-raising push but also to the idea of the PAC, he said. Some people marvel at the irony of it. Others, he said, question the motive.
He said people asked, “Isn’t there something wrong with using something that you think is an unjust system to bring about change?”
No, is his answer.
The irony of using money to influence politics because you are outraged by the influence of money in politics is not lost on Lessig, who said the country is at a point when irony is an important tool in political education.
“Straight talk might not be the most effective talk,” he said, referencing a recent study that said people who watched satirist Stephen Colbert’s “The Colbert Report” during the 2012 presidential election had a better understanding of super PACs and their accompanying nonprofits than those who did not.
The report, titled “Stephen Colbert’s Civics Lesson: How Colbert Super PAC Taught Viewers About Campaign Finance,” was done by researchers at Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania and the Pew Research Center. It was published online in May.
After randomly interviewing 1,232 adults, the report found that political satirist’s on-air creation of a super PAC served as a civics lesson.
During the last presidential election cycle, Colbert, a faux-conservative TV host, set up the Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow PAC and a 501(c)(4) organization.
Over the course of several months, attorney Trevor Potter, the former FEC chairman, provided Colbert with legal advice, essentially walking him through the steps of setting up a PAC.
“Political comedy can act as a gateway to additional news use,” the study said. “Colbert’s efforts were educational, not just a proliferation of jokes.”
While Lessig might not be using humor, he hopes the irony of his efforts spurs a movement.
Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.