John McCain must be rolling over in his dying campaign. The champion of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BiCRA) had hoped to squelch all "unofficial" campaign speech with a massive wall of regulations, reporting, limits, conditions, and barriers. He didn't anticipate blimps, or the unique funding plan of Trevor Lyman and friends.
The purpose of the Act, according to McCain was to eliminate the "cloud of suspicion" that legislators were taking bribes from special interest groups for favorable legislation. Since 2002, every American has come to realize that all of these secret bribes have been totally abolished by the McCain-Feingold legislation, ending forever this kind of "tainted" conduct. Well ... every American who has a blindfold stapled to their face.
The purpose of BiCRA was not to punish unscrupulous politicians (those who were convicted of bribery were charged with bribery), but to put strict limits on every American's First Amendment rights to political speech. Henceforth, politicians could only be offered bribes of less than $2,300.00 (adjusted for inflation) to buy earmarks, subsidies, deductions, and favors for their friends and associates. And, they would all be publicly reported to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), so everyone would know exactly who bribed whom.
This was a 36-page law, so there had to be loopholes. To make matters worse, the Supreme Court nitpicked the Act and provided over 100,000 pages of itemized approvals and disapprovals. This made it clear to everyone.
In brief, individuals can contribute the indexed amount for each primary and general election campaign, while national and state political parties or officially certified Political Action Committees (PAC s) - could contribute up to $5,000.00 of reported "hard money" per election cycle. The only persons with no contribution limits at all are the candidates themselves. In 1995, Steve Forbes put $16.5 million into his Presidential campaign. Last month, Mitt Romney broke the record, giving $17.4 million to his own campaign. Well, "give" is not the correct word. It's actually a "personal loan" to the campaign committee, which the candidate dearly hopes will be paid back from a huge influx of future contributions. Romney still owes himself the full amount.Loopholes
The BiCRA law had to at least maintain the pretense that people could still speak out on political issues. It exempted all broadcast, internet, and print media from any limit on their "in kind" advocacy on behalf of any federal candidate. And, individuals could give up to $108,200.00, but it had to pass through political party funds and PACs, with the same limits applying for each candidate. So, if you are not a candidate or a media outlet, how do you express your support for any candidate, beyond those limits?
An independent campaign communication expenditure is money spent by one individual with absolutely no "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 committee or its agents."(Sec. 100.16). You can't even sneeze in the general vicinity of your favorite candidate without violating the law and you are obliged to report expenditures of more than $250.00 per year to the FEC, but there are no limits.Greener Grassroots
Recognizing that it would be practically impossible to enforce the $250.00 reporting breakpoint on thousands of individuals spending their own money, the FEC almost never scrutinizes small "independent expenditures" unless it receives an official complaint (and rarely imposes any more than a tiny fine). But, if you want to do something BIG, you'd better print out the FEC Form 5. What's BIG? Well, for starters, a full-page ad in USA Today is a very big deal. Ron Paul supporter Lawrence Lepard of New Hampshire wanted to express his support for Ron Paul's effort and spent over $85,000 of his own money on an "Open Letter to the American People" ... without breathing a word of it to the Ron Paul campaign. Then, there is The Blimp.
Helium and Section 100.16
Trevor Lyman, a Florida musical promoter (now in New Hampshire), had instigated and brought to fruition the amazing $4.2 million "money bomb" for the Ron Paul campaign on November 5th. He made plans to follow-up with another record "Boston Tea Party" on December 16th. Then, he read a casual suggestion in one of the Ron Paul chat rooms: "What about a blimp?"
After some research, Lyman discovered that it would cost more than a million dollars to rent and equip a large blimp for just one month. While discussing costs with Airship Management Services, he discovered that the owner was a Ron Paul fan, willing to provide his huge blimp at cost: $350,000.00. How to raise that kind of money for such a huge project? Never mind. Trevor setup the website and started soliciting pledges. He achieved another miracle, getting the required pledges within a few weeks. There was only one problem: how to collect and spend the money legally. The best person to ask? A former Director of the FEC.
Bradley Smith had left the FEC and was intrigued by the novel blimp project. He agreed to consult on the proper legal method of raising the funds, which clearly had to be "independent expenditures." The non-profit route wouldn't work, in spite of recent Supreme Court rulings that loosened the restrictions on their political speech, which left direct contribution limits in place.
The only credible alternative was to form a for-profit corporation - Liberty Political Advertising LLC of North Carolina ... which would sell "time-share" space on the blimp. Each individual contributor, not the corporation, would be buying their own "political communication" as a totally independent statement of their support. The corporation would be simply selling a service, just like any media company selling commercial time directly to campaigns. The blimp project managers would have no FEC reporting obligation, although they are helping their customers to comply with the law by providing the proper forms to report their own, personal, campaign expenditures. The Ron Paul Blimp could soar into the skies ... legally!
Aside from the novelty of blimp advertising, the financing method is the first of its kind. No one has ever attempted this before and it wouldn't be surprising to see complaints filed with the FEC by opponents of Ron Paul. Far and away, too Revolutionary.
The interesting conundrum for those who are awed and chilled by such creativity is that they would have to contest the freedom of every advertising agency or business who accepts payments for political advertising. In order to force Liberty Political Advertising to comply with some limit or reporting requirement, the Commission would have to impose the same rules on every newspaper, television network, radio station, and magazine that rents advertising time or space. The irony is that the Main Stream Media (MSM) that has so studiously ignored Ron Paul's campaign, would have to take the side of Paul supporters to protect their own First Amendment rights. Looks like there might be some "Hope for America" after all. A huge blimp (and a free ride for reporters) is very hard for the media to ignore.