The latest project for Harvard professor and campaign finance reform activist Lawrence Lessig? Building a super PAC.
Lessig and other reform advocates launched a fundraising campaign Thursday to kick-start May Day PAC, which, if successful, will help elect enough like-minded lawmakers to Congress in 2014 and 2016 to pass campaign finance reform.
“Yes, we want to spend big money to end the influence of big money,” Lessig said in a launch video posted online. “Ironic, I get it. But embrace the irony.”
Super PACs — political committees that can raise unlimited funds from donors and spend on behalf of candidates — proliferated after the controversial 2010 Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision, which ruled that campaign contributions are a manifestation of free speech, protected under the First Amendment. Campaign finance rules were further weakened last month when the Supreme Court struck down aggregate campaign contribution limits for federal candidates in McCutcheon v. FEC.
The crowd-funded campaign to make May Day PAC as formidable an influence in politics as traditional PACs will roll out in multiple stages. First, Lessig is asking donors across the country to pledge $1 million. If he achieves that goal in the next 30 days, May Day PAC will collect those donations, which will trigger an additional $1 million in matching funds.
The next target is for $5 million by the end of June, which will again draw matching funds. If all goes according to plan, Lessig hopes to use that $12 million in total contributions to hire the “most bad-ass campaign shops” in the business to influence the outcome of five House races in November.
For now, May Day PAC is keeping under wraps which races it hopes to target, in order not to raise the hackles of competing super PACs and wealthy donors ahead of time.
Lessig himself admits that this is an experiment and that it’s anyone’s guess as to how it will play out. May Day PAC may not reach its fundraising goals, and even if it does, it could easily be outmaneuvered by the super PACs that actually rely on billionaire contributors. The success or failure of the 2014 drive is meant to give him and fellow campaign finance reform advocates a sense of whether using a super PAC to end super PACs is a workable strategy at all before they plot their moves for the 2016 presidential and congressional elections.
“No one knows whether we can build such a movement from the citizens up — certainly I don’t — but we need to try,” Lessig said.
Early signs for May Day PAC look promising. Only 24 hours after launching the website and spreading the word online, it had already reached 30 percent of its goal. Lessig said the surge is a testament to the intensity of Americans’ desire to change the way their political system operates.
“There are many fundraising techniques in the age of Internet fundraising. There are lists to buy. There are targeted ads. There are grants to seed. But we did none of that,” Lessig wrote Friday on his blog. “We put up a website, I did a blog entry, Rootstrikers informed its list, and we tweeted. And over the course of a day, thousands responded to the call.”
“That’s not because of the graphics, or the video, or the cool Oswald font. It’s because this issue matters to Americans. We are starved for a response, for someone to take the lead. And thousands are eager to do whatever they can.”
The name May Day derives from the distress call Lessig sees himself sending out across cyberspace for average American citizens to step up and rescue their system of government from the iron grip of millionaires and billionaires who he believes control the majority of policy outcomes.
"While infrastructure collapses, while our schools fail, while we have a health care system that costs too much and does too little, while climate change remains totally unaddressed, while our tax system remains a gift to those who can afford to lobby for loopholes, politicians from both parties still spend endless time raising money from the tiniest fraction of the 1 percent,” he said. "We want to fight back. Our democracy is held hostage by the funders of campaigns, and we’re going to pay the ransom and get it back."
Lessig’s effort comes at the end of a week in which Senate Democrats announced they would schedule a vote this year on a constitutional amendment that would reassert Congress’ authority to regulate campaign finance. Although the amendment is all but guaranteed to not cross the two-third threshold in the Senate required for it to be ratified, the move appears to denote Democrats’ seriousness about tackling the flood of money in politics and get Republican lawmakers on the record about their positions.
"Money and speech are the same thing?” said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., the sponsor of the amendment. “This is tortured logic."